when we drive to Pennsylvania in the summers, with my daughters locked in their screens for miles and miles of cornfields and scorched hillsides, we drive there to visit the relatives we left behind. In the language of our times, we make these trips for face-to-face or F2F contact. For 7-year-old Maeve to whisper to her grandmother’s many German Shepherds, for her 3-year-old sister Phoebe to climb on her grandfather Foo’s back, for both of them to fall into a veritable pile with their Uncle Ian and Aunt Lolo. But, for the vast majority of the year, Maeve and Phoebe and their Philadelphia family talk on FaceTime.
It’s very hard to underestimate the degree to which he specifically didn’t think videophone technology would ever be a thing. Like many aspirationally pretentious suburban teens, I went through a period of cheesy luddism in the late 1990s. Inspired by the Beastie Boys, I bought dozens of vinyl LPs for 99 cents a piece, made a cut-and-paste zine about indie music called He soul electric potato[e] with my friends, I ordered and received a manual typewriter for Christmas. These were the general trends of white guys wearing secondhand cardigans over gas station attendant shirts in my demographic, but my analogue aesthetic was, for a while, buoyed by a genuine pessimism about technology in general. Partly as a stylistic choice and partly as actual belief, I remember talking very casually about the foolishness of striving for things like voice activation, digital navigation, and most importantly, videophones. In the 90s my vision of the future was one where millions of dollars would be spent trying to perfect marginally useful jetsonics-inspired technology that would never really work.
It only now occurs to me that this technologically backlash popular culture, to which I was a teenage devotee, was itself a phenomenon of the screen time era. The phrase screen time it arose as a meme to scare parents about the dangers of too much television for young children. The term, in its current form, originates from a 1991 Mother Jones article by opinion columnist Tom Engelhardt. Previously, screen time he had been referring to the amount of time an actor appeared on screen in television and movies. But Engelhardt, in “The Primal Screen,” reversed the meaning of the term. Screen time was not a measure of what was happening on the screen; it was a metric that evaluated us.
In the intervening decades, that definition has become definitive. For parents, guessing and regulating children’s screen time is now a big part of the job. Whether you take a hardline or agnostic position, it has become a central facet of modern child-rearing, a choice like deciding whether to raise children religiously or when to allow ears to be pierced. How much is too much? What are they seeing when I’m not paying attention? What could they see? Who could see them? We care about what our children see; we worry about what might be on our screens watching them.
The teenagers who, like me, brought their old Olivetti typewriters into coffee shops to write Vonnegut-style short stories are the same teenagers whose youth was the first to be governed by this particular parenting movement. We were the kids who were told that screens were bad for them, who were banned from TV, or who went overboard in response. Although I doubt anyone in this group would have listed obedience to parents As a particularly high priority, it seems to me that at least some of this allergic reaction to nifty digital technology, technology that Apple was making fancier and fancier by the day in ways that would eventually tempt us away from our tech-free purity, it was from growing up in a cultural moment defined by the villainization of the screens. Maturity means the ability to discern.
But it turns out that my teenage self was wrong. FaceTime, at least, works. Or rather, FaceTime technology works. The user experience can be a bit flawed.
There have been various stages in the use of FaceTime by girls. The first stage was the easiest. The girl, Maeve in this case, is a little wrapped dumpling. My partner Mel could call her mom or her sister and magically have an ordinary conversation, with a live feed of Maeve on the screen instead of her own face. What if I told you that you can talk to your own daughter but see only uninterrupted video of your baby? magnificentdaughter? The future is now! This is the excellent deal that Gram made in those early days. But then Maeve got restless, a worrying wrinkle in our FaceTime dynamic: We couldn’t keep her onscreen.
From there, Maeve ascended to late childhood. She was still fidgety, but with better motor skills and a docile, inquisitive mind. At that moment, her paradigm shift happened: she just handed over the phone. Her framing instinct was not yet fully developed, so often these images consisted of the top of her forehead at the bottom of the screen, a traveling shot of our ceiling fan, or perhaps just a close-up. from his nostril. But, without falling into the ageism here, her grandparents weren’t much better. This was especially true of her GG Pap, my Grandpa, who was still around and always eager to pick up his iPhone when Maeve called. (Even now, years after he passed away, his contact is listed on my phone as “iGrandpa”.) One of the most enduring images I can conjure up of him is of 4-year-old Maeve gleefully gabbling about the nursery while holding a phone that displayed an image of my grandfather’s right eye on the screen with an inset image of Maeve’s right eye. Looking out, looking in.