Even before COVID-19, we were living far too much of our lives on and through screens. Wall-mounted big screens, laptops, desktops, iPads, smartphones. Log in, scroll down, click, touch, swipe.
But since the arrival of the killer virus and the shutdown of life as we knew it, our screen dependency has grown exponentially. We are now dependent on screens to have any connection to some of our most ancient religious rituals, fundamental civic practices and deeply moving moments of human life.
It might be hard to think about such matters when just trying to get food and medicine while eluding an invisible killer demands so much planning and worry. But we must think about how living so much of our lives on and through screens might be changing us.
For one thing, we in Baltimore are going to make one of the most important civic decisions in the city’s history in picking a mayor who hopefully will help lead us out of a dreadful downward spiral of population loss, poverty, racial disparity, police corruption and murder. But between now and the time we vote in the Democratic primary, the vast majority of what we will see and hear about the candidates is going to come to us through screens: TV ads, streamed Facebook messages or Instagram images, many of them carefully staged to show us only what the candidates and their consultants want us to see.
Those artificially created media images are one of the ways Catherine Pugh, who had one of the most skilled consultants in national politics, became our mayor in 2016. As I wrote at the time, her TV ad campaign was head and shoulders above the others. (The money to pay for TV placement of those ads, we now know, was obtained illegally, according to federal documents, but that’s another story.)
Donald Trump didn’t have to spend so much on TV ads, mainly because of the free airtime he got as a result of being so much better than Hillary Clinton as a performer in the artificially constructed space of a TV screen.
Do we now know how to see through the false promises and distortions that can be embedded in such political images? We better, because that’s pretty much all we are going to get this election cycle.
The most heartbreaking images I have seen in connection with our heightened dependency on screens in the wake of COVID-19 involves people speaking to their dying loved ones for the last time via social media. This is done in some cases, because they cannot be in the room with patients who have contracted the virus, lest they become contagious and spread the disease. And so, they see their loved ones on a screen and say their final goodbye to them that way.
God bless the medical workers who make this possible ― sometimes with their own laptops and smartphones. And, yes, I guess it is a blessing that we have the technology to allow at least some contact in the final moments of a life during a pandemic. But imagine having to try and comfort and say goodbye through a screen to someone you love without being able to touch or feel them? It is at the very least a far less intimate and human experience in every sense of those words.
It is the same for funerals where stay-at-home orders keep loved ones away.
Tracy Dilka, who lives in Colorado, was not able to attend the funeral of her mother who died from COVID-19 and was buried in Kansas. Because travel restrictions kept her away, she watched the graveside service on FaceTime.
“Watching the service on the iPhone, it was like I wasn’t even there to say goodbye,” Ms. Dilka told CNN host Erin Burnett in an interview last week. Ms. Dilka added that she feels none of the sense of closure she experienced through attending her father’s funeral in person.
Since the earliest days of television in the 1950s, analysts have wondered and worried about how spending so much time in front the screen was going to affect us. The consensus was that six or seven hours a day in front of a TV screen couldn’t possibly be a good thing, especially for children.
That was barely a warm up for where we are today, not just staring at screens but interacting with them and living too much of what should be our real lives with one-dimensional, video images captured, limited and controlled by cameras operated by others.