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Screen Test

Do you know what you did before computers, cell phones and iPads?

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 4:59 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — I woke up the other morning wondering how I spent my time in the days before the Internet.

In the early quiet, I lie there trying to remember. What exactly did I do first thing in the morning before all those screens cried for my attention? What did I do at night? How did I proceed through the work and play of the day?

And was it more peaceful? I think it was more peaceful.

After musing on these questions for a while, I hopped up, clicked on the radio, fired up the laptop, flipped open the cover of my iPad, glanced at my smartphone and by the time I’d checked Facebook, Twitter, Google Trends, two email accounts and three newspaper websites, I needed a nap.

Good morning, world.

The questions above are ones that a person under 30 might find akin to contemplating what frontier women did first thing when they woke up in the Conestoga wagon. When you’ve spent your entire adult life on screens, life without them must seem prehistoric.

But even those of us who grew up without the seduction of multiple screens can barely imagine life without them. That’s what intrigues me, how difficult it can be to remember the primitive pre-screen era of our own not-so-distant past, how we spent our time and energy back then.

Was there really a time when you didn’t have to answer email? When you weren’t tempted by Facebook or Pinterest or some other online seduction? Before you Googled every fleeting factoid that caught your fancy?

How did you spend that time?

I’d like to say I spent mine exercising, reading fine books, being with people I love and refining various artistic skills, but I may have just spent more time on the phone.

I pondered this mystery again after watching the Academy Awards last weekend. While the stars pranced and preened on the TV screen, I scrolled through Facebook, posting my occasional thoughts on the Oscars, reading other people’s.

Such behavior is called “second-screen viewing” and it’s a growing phenomenon. I had a third screen going too, using my iPad to Google urgent facts. How old is Anne Hathaway? Is that Hugh Jackman’s original wife? Is Seth MacFarlane gay?

Meanwhile, on my fourth screen, I answered a couple of phone texts.

Did I ever watch the Oscars and just watch the Oscars?

Please. Do not write to tell me that this is an insane way to live. It may be, but it’s the way millions of people live now, in constant cyberconnection, determined to know everything about everything all the time.

I was recently at a friend’s for dinner. Several times, as the conversation opened up questions no one could answer (what was that name? that date?), certain of the diners were inclined to leap from the table to fetch a laptop and find out.

Fortunately, we had the collective fortitude to ban screens from the table, but no sooner had we started to clear the dishes than the host was on his computer looking for answers to our trivial pursuits.

Shutting down the screens isn’t a reasonable option for most of us, though it’s nice to think technology may one day offer ways to let us do what we want to do without feeling so consumed and fractured.

My solution for the moment is to keep my 1923 mandolin strapped to my chest a lot while I’m digitally multitasking. There’s something about the feeling of that old wood that keeps the ground beneath the ether.

And there are some great YouTube videos to strum along with.

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She can be contacted via e-mail at mschmich@tribune.com

©2013 The Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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