ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
A few weeks ago, I called my grandmother and she spoke to me about the week that she learned cursive in elementary school. She told me the story during one of our usual calls—a time she lets loose the rambling images stored in her 88-year-old brain as I fold laundry or organize my calendar. That day, she jumped from describing the plots of the books she read on the train to visit her sister in New York to her best friend who lived across her street in her hometown in Pennsylvania. My grandmother’s memory of her friend led her to speak about her days in school and when she learned how to write in cursive. She talked about the loops that her hand would make, one after the other as her fingers absorbed the curve of the pen on the page and her mind memorized the ink patterns that it formed.
I thought then about when I learned cursive in my own second-grade class. I loved the way that that the letters had to fit between and skim the solid and the dotted lines, and that each letter could connect with one another. H could connect with o to m to e to make “home” or the word blue could break the rules when connecting the loop between b and l as it dipped below the worksheet’s dotted line. As I spoke to my grandmother, I sat at my desk with my headphones in my ears and my face on my screen. My fingers itched for the feeling of connecting a b to an l. While I had the privilege of literary criticism, fiction, and poetry a click away, years of humanities-based education under my belt, and access to a network of professors and students, I craved making loops on a piece of paper with a pen.
I have wanted to unplug my computer and throw it out the window from time to time over the last few years, but by the start of the new year in 2021 it was all I wanted to do. Just when it felt our screen time could not get any worse, it did. Jobs, school, doctors’ appointments, meetings, birthday parties, cocktail hours, movie watching sessions, comedy shows, panels and discussions, concerts, cooking shows, tutorials, workout classes, and other blocks of time slipped behind the screen during the pandemic.
And it is incredible that they did. Individuals’ move to the screen allowed others greater access to education, political and social discussion, connection with loved ones and strangers, and the continuation of vital and non-vital parts of the day. Businesses, institutions, companies, social groups, and individuals all showed incredible ingenuity and creativity adapting to a distanced life. While we have voluntarily distanced ourselves from each other for the sake of health and survival, and technology has alleviated some of the negative effects of this isolation, we are in a position where in-person connection is possible again.
Access to the internet and screens is a privilege. However, for those who do have the privilege of this access, the effects are not all positive. This is not news to anyone. In addition to mental stimulation that comes with a muscle memory engagement, hours behind screens take many people away from limited time under the sunlight, out of the open air, and away from the smells, quirks, mannerisms, and habits of loved ones and strangers. Wayne Koestenbaum writes in his book Humiliation, published in 2011, about technology’s uncanny ability to separate people from one another. According to Koestenbaum, it distracts people from themselves by sabotaging their ability to self-confront, which allows people to get to know themselves and then create more empathetic connections with others.
The paradox of the internet’s ability to connect as it works as a biased intermediary between people effectually depersonalizes individuals. The screen blocks a person’s reading of someone else because it creates a limited, curated, and unrealistic vision of that other person. While this conversation is not new, the effects particular to a nonfiction writer’s engagement with the outside world are worth discussing. Koestenbaum writes, “More and more, the industries of communication and entertainment—with their globalizing quest to amuse, stimulate, connect—secretly work to deaden, or desubjectify, the human voice” (Koestenbaum 31). Koestenbaum describes the cruelty of what he calls “desubjectification,” or a compromise of human understanding of the humanity of other people. Echoes of this deadening effect seep their way into most conversations I had with people about screen time. These stories range from a friend who is a social care worker talking about how hard it is to get kids to speak during virtual therapy sessions, texts from kids I nannied who say their eyes feel like they’re falling out of their heads by the end of the day, family and friends who stare at multiple monitors while sitting at desks in their childhood bedrooms.
Louisa McCullough works as an editorial assistant at Little, Brown at Hachette Book Group. She graduated in the spring of 2021 from Columbia with a masters degree in English Literature. She graduated in 2020 from the University of St Andrews with a joint degree in English and Social Anthropology. She is passionate about the editorial process, helping new writers, and learning about where artists find inspiration.