Good screen, bad screen


media books music

We are about to share a media experience together. Please switch off and put your phone away. Please switch off your smart watch and annihilate any other illuminated sources of time. Please strive to be entirely within the world created by the shared experience rather than in your own life or even your own body, whose use should be constrained to the sense organs need to consume the experience and the parts required for breathing, crying, and perhaps laughing. Limit then, itching, fidgeting, coughing, sneezing, farting, and throat clearing. I, of course, might start scrolling through my phone if I get bored.

I live in the time of images. I’m not upset about it; there are some great images! Nevertheless, I have spent and will spend an incredible proportion of my live consuming media images and sounds, thinking about them, and discussing them with others. Most of my social relations are mediated by these images. I speak to others using references to media we have both enjoyed. I spend quality time with others by sharing a media consumption experience. As a result, I’ve developed a sickening little system of morality around media. I have an implicit worthiness hierarchy for the kind of media I spend my time consuming. From most worthy to least worthy, it goes:

  1. Watching live theatre
  2. Watching live music
  3. Watching film at the cinema
  4. Reading a book
  5. Reading an eBook
  6. Watching a movie at home
  7. Watching “prestige” TV
  8. Reading a long form article on a screen
  9. Listening to a history podcast
  10. Listening to a news podcast
  11. Watching “non-prestige” TV
  12. Watching “edutainment” YouTube
  13. Scrolling through social media
  14. Watching general YouTube

In each case, if I’m doing more than one thing at a time during any of these activities, the worthiness is downgraded significantly. You can short change a piece of media by consuming it wrong, with little commitment or attention. Tell Christopher Nolan you watched Tenet in twenty minute sections on a transatlantic flight just like he intended. Tell x auteur director you think you saw their movie but you were scrolling through Zoopla at the time so you don’t know how it ended.

In the ranking above you can see those old fashioned, probably bullshit biases: live experiences are better, books are better, paper over e-ink, drama is better than comedy (all the way back to Aristotle, that one), social media is bad. There is not a single one of these binary comparisons I would defend as right, and yet my lizard brain organises them thus. Note also that while I rank live music very high, listening to music otherwise does not merit even a ranking. I don’t think my broken brain can just sit and listen to recorded music while doing nothing else unless I am very much on drugs.

I rank actual self-improvement or attempted creativity above all of these. If I spend any time trying to build up a skill like a language or musical instrument, that’s much better. Here, I resist the urge to precisely and comprehensively stack rank the worthiness of every possible use of my time for fear of sounding like (and perhaps being) a psychopath. I am not in the habit of creating much these days, there’s simply too much to consume that is already good. Creating things is mostly disappointing in my limited experience, though I feel like I ought to do it on a daily basis.