Some years ago, working for the library and before a satellite-orchestrated Internet was Everything, I remember one patron who'd come into our library, looking for books. Star Wars, not much else.
This fellow, whom I'll call Chris, was of indeterminate age and he would tie up one of our computer catalogs for long stretches of time, looking for what was in. I'll also mention Chris had Down's Syndrome and invariably was the most upbeat patron we'd have all day.
Because his speech didn't lend itself to ready comprehension, I realized in a minor epiphany Chris had the perfect partner in the computer for library interactions. The computer screen gave him answers. The computer screen was unfailingly patient. The computer screen was never judgmental about repetitious queries.
Well, time went by and that tight bond between Chris and screen I now see everywhere. People walk down the street [if not cross streets] staring at what? Screen magnetism has to distort our sense of being present in the world with others. How often do we buy something when the seller's attention is less on us, and more on navigating screen menus until we hand over the plastic?
Admittedly, in the world of commerce screens make sense for certain transactions: time-sensitive ticket sales [the flight departs, the curtain rises].
But what about a mortgage on a house circa 2007?
What I fear about screen magnetism is it promotes a loss of individual agency [The system won't let me do that]. The decision rules embedded in software algorithms. Plus, if individual agency can be sloughed off on a system then one sees instances like the breakdown of loan underwriting that led to 2008's global catastrophe.
Increasing loss of individual agency reminds me of days when computers did little more than send out monthly statements. My close associate, while in New York City, went into the Brooks Bros. store at 346 Madison. She saw a sweater vest she thought I'd like. She went up to the salesman and said she didn't have money for the sweater, but that I had a Brooks Bros. card. He asked for no more than my name and address. He went away with the sweater, made some notes at a desk and came back, gave her the sweater, and said, "It's taken care of." The next month, I got the bill in my Santa Monica mailbox.
If in our age of screen magnetism, we take away that Brooks salesman's discretionary judgment, I fear we're losing too much individual agency. Screen magnetism and algorithms might only have more 2008-style shambles on tap.
Image credit: google images: fiber2fashion.com
Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)
Also, a flash fiction, "Ylena Thinks Nyet," is at Cigale Literary Magazine.
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