Mesmerized by Pixels

Boy, Twitter better hope it doesn’t cross paths with me in a dark alley.

“Hey, I don’t want no trouble,” Twitter would say. “#BackOff.”

And then the blows would rain down like so many characters and hashtags and tags and whatever.

“Retweet this,” I’d shout as I throttled the demonic beast.

I’ve had a few fantasies about destroying technology in my recent blogs. Who knows what this means? I might be losing it. Hey, you spend a year in a Zoom room and see if you aren’t losing it! Look, I’ve spent too much time in my screen this year. Checking Twitter for headlines. The kids call it doom scrolling.

We live during a politicized pandemic. People are storming capitols. Black people continue to be murdered. Folks on the right shout at folks on the left and folks on the left shout at folks on the right and don’t get me started about folks who aren’t on the left or the right. Everybody seems angry at everybody about everything. This is the impression that I get from doom scrolling Twitter. Or checking Facebook. Or staring at my screen.

I always liked these lines in the poem America by Allen Ginsberg:

Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?   
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.   
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.   
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

Times have changed, Allen. Twitter is a little different than Time Magazine. But your words seem relevant. It sure feels like this nation’s emotional life is run by social media. And I’m as obsessed as anybody else. Social media isn’t as much about responsibility or being serious as it is about violence, insurrection, and narcissism. But it sure does feel like America is talking to itself again.

Here’s another line from Ginsberg’s poem. To America, Allen wrote this:

When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

Man, I’d love to buy a loaf of bread with these baby blue eyes. But I better not turn around. My hair is thinning back there. Getting old. I might not have the goods to buy what I need with my good looks anymore.

Anyway, I like the poem America by Allen Ginsberg. It holds up 70 years later. Here’s a link if you want to read it.

***

Look, I like a few things about Twitter. I can call up the MNTwins hashtag and get real-time information about what is quickly becoming the most awful team in the history of Major League Baseball. And it is cool to see what former high school students are up to. And I like having a connection to other scholars in my field or authors who have been far more successful than me in sharing their work. And yes, it is easy to scroll the headlines on Twitter. Have access to multiple publications at once.

But then 20 minutes goes by and my body is still sitting a chair. And my eyes are still staring at a glowing screen. And I usually feel yuckier than I felt when I started.

I miss reading the newspaper. I loved scrutinizing box scores as a kid. I’d beg Dad for a quarter, walk up to the machine on the corner of Mt. Curve and Randolph, and grab a copy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I’d race home, eager to see how many innings Tapani pitched the night before. Read Bob Sansevere’s musings about the Vikings. Check out World News. Read some comics. I howled at the Far Side. This habit stuck with me through high school and into college. I loved sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, and moving through different sections of the paper. Folding them when I was finished so Dad could look at them later. Sunlight streaming through the patio doors into our quiet living room.

I don’t have the same pleasant association with huddling over my phone and doom scrolling headlines. It’s just not the same. There’s something uglier about it, even though I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe I’m just getting older and have a distaste for youngsters and their newfangled contraptions. Or maybe something happens in our brains when we get absorbed in a real-time, virtual world that really has only one goal. To keep us scrolling so that we’ll scroll some more. And maybe that’s why I’m fantasizing about crossing paths with Twitter in a dark alley.

***

I’ve taught the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma twice this year. It’s so interesting to me to hear the actual creators of different apps talk about their work. Chilling might be a better word. And it’s fascinating to hear my college students discuss the film. Talk about their own interactions with social media. Think about what social media means for the work of teaching.

I do try and limit the amount of time I play with my phone. I don’t post all that much on Facebook or Instagram. Random picture of me or my family once in awhile. I hardly ever Tweet. And yes, I like seeing pictures of family or former students. I’m a 1,000 miles from home, and it’s nice to see the Stone Arch Bridge or the Spyhouse coffee shop in Northeast Minneapolis. And I do try and stay abreast of the news through social media. Abreast is a funny word. So there is some scrolling that happens on this end of the screen. But it doesn’t ever really leave me feeling good. Usually puts me in a daze. Mesmerized by pixels. That’s no way to live.

Let’s end this blog with another line from Ginsberg’s poem:

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?

It’s very hard to write holy litanies these days. Especially doom scrolling the crazy-making gobbely-gook that is oozing form my phone. So, instead of holy litanies, I’m offering you a deranged fantasy about assaulting Twitter in a dark alley.

We work with the material we have, and that’s what I have this week. #WatchOutTwitter.

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