The Locus of Entertainment
Or why I might give my daughter an iPad
Do you ever get bored anymore?
I suspect the answer is no. How could you? The moment your mind has an opportunity to wander it is pulled back into Screenworld, seeking a new escape from the terror of our own thoughts.
This is often referenced as a bad thing. Another example of how technology has ruined us. Back in MY day, we threw rocks at each other when we were bored! What better times.
I’m not sure screens have changed our relationship with boredom though. I don’t believe people used to be more introspective, more pensive, or more bored. It’s easy to think that, reading the books of old, but those were all written by nerdy introspective types. Most people were still distracted entertainment-seekers, but they distracted themselves in different ways.
The image above of people reading the newspaper on the train (and images like it) is oft-cited evidence of how little has changed with cell phones. People didn’t get on the train and talk to strangers, they buried themselves in newspapers. Now they bury themselves in phones. We’ve always avoided talking to people, nothing is different.
Yet something is different. I don’t think people snuck glances at the newspaper under the dinner table. There aren’t many recorded car accidents from people trying to read MAD Magazine while driving. Screenworld has hooked us in a strange new way.
Though it’s not quite fair to say it’s a Screenworld problem in general, is it? Because even when we’re immersed in Screenworld, we’re still seeking out further entertainment.
Everyone speaking on a Zoom call is under the illusion that the other participants are listening to them when in reality they’re likely tabbed away to Twitter or Facebook. And how often while watching TV do you pull out your phone for some additional entertainment? Many people will fill their desks with multiple monitors, allowing them to watch something on one screen while moving numbers around on the other one.
The problem isn’t the screens, it’s what's behind them. What screens have enabled is a gradual shifting of our locus of entertainment from internal to external. From entertainment being something we generate to something generated for us. And as a consequence, we’re losing the ability to entertain ourselves, relying on increasingly stimulating sources as our entertainment muscles continue to atrophy.
This, I argue, is the greatest harm of Screenworld. When we lose the ability to internally generate entertainment, it’s a rather short road to depression, asociality, addiction, and ennui.
But there may be hope.
Imagine the pre-screen era for a moment. What were your options to be entertained? I’m using that terminology very deliberately: what were your options for entertainment as a purely passive process?
Reading, for example, is not entirely passive. Even for the simplest of beach reads, you need to hallucinate aspects of the story in your head. You need to read the letters on the page. If you look away for a few minutes, the story does not continue along and pulls you back in. You must return to it. The book does a lot of the work, yes, but it’s a team effort.
Historically, your only significant option for passive entertainment was the theater and any “shows” that could be put on by your peers. Here too there were various levels to it. Watching slaves get mauled by tigers in the coliseum was a bit less intensive than watching Shakespeare. But in all these versions of passive entertainment, it was not on demand. You needed to choose to be entertained for a period, and when it was over, you had to return to the world of self-generated entertainment.
Even for a king who could spend most of their day at the theater, their default mode would still be a more internal locus of entertainment. They would read, debate, and play, and most of their leisure was active. It was not passive consumption.
That’s not to say people weren’t concerned about the theater. Even back in Seneca’s day (around year 0), he references the ills that can befall someone who spends too much time at the plays:
“But nothing is as ruinous to the character as sitting away one’s time at a show – for it is then, through the medium of entertainment, that vices creep into one with more than usual ease.”
At least the theater was not the default way of life though. You still had to seek it out.
Now that is not the case. You can open TikTok and scroll for hours, putting in no further effort than thinking “THIS GOOD” or “THIS BAD, NEXT VIDEO.” It is not a dialogue between you and the medium like a book, and it’s certainly not an activity like playing soccer or gardening. It’s sit back, open phone, and let the drool come out.
This shift is at the core of why Screenworld has been so harmful to our mental health.
Let’s start with the obvious. Reading has gotten dramatically harder as we spend more time on screens. And I’d argue that the main reason for this is because we’ve grown accustomed to having all the entertaining done for us (YouTube, TV, TikTok, Instagram), or having to do very little work (e.g. Twitter, where you still have to read, but very briefly).
The length of time necessary to invest to be entertained has dramatically shortened, too. When we talk about having a short attention span or having ADHD, Screenworld has likely exacerbated this by satisfying our need for entertainment in much smaller pieces. You used to have to build up a whole world in your head to be entertained. Now you just scroll till you get to the next hot take, pretty picture, or silly dog video.
Our brains are lazy. They want to satisfy their needs with as little effort as possible. We need entertainment on some level, and we will seek out the simplest solution to the entertainment problem. We will not do extra work for it. It’s the same reason porn probably contributes to the underpopulation and sexlessness issue. Why risk embarrassing yourself talking to a stranger when you can find the exact kind of person you’re attracted to doing the exact kind of thing that turns you on in a matter of seconds?
We’re happy to let the locus of entertainment be pulled out of our minds and into screens, and if this were purely a leisure problem it might not be such a big deal. If most fiction reading and play-going gets replaced by TikToking, the world wouldn’t necessarily be that much worse of a place.
The problem is it doesn’t stop there.
Nearly everything reduces to entertainment or sustenance. You’re either doing it to stay alive, or to be entertained. Obviously, certain activities blend the two, but you can reduce most of your day to these two urges.
We have a natural desire for companionship, but part of our relationships with others is also predicated on entertainment. If it is not enjoyable to be around someone, you will naturally stop wanting to spend time with them. Conflict in relationships tends to develop when the entertainment vs. time together is imbalanced. We rage against work colleagues, family, and neighbors the most because we don’t get to adjust the time commitment based on their entertainment (or maybe “camaraderie” if we want a friendlier term) value.
But creating entertainment with others requires a bit of work. Conversation is work. Play is work. Social activities like cooking, hiking, traveling, and hunting, all require work. And if your locus of entertainment has been too severely externalized, you will not want to put in the work to create entertainment with others. You will want to be entertained.
If that thesis is right, what would we expect? We’d expect people to be on their phones in social settings. We’d expect people to spend most of their nights at home alone, or with their partner, watching TV instead of socializing. We’d expect fewer dinner parties and more ordering in. We’d expect kids on their phones at the dinner table. We’d expect people to keep sampling new potential mates instead of investing in making it work with someone who’s an 80% fit. We’d expect unlimited options and consistent disappointment. Because the real world cannot compete with Screenworld. The real world will not entertain us. We must create entertainment from it.
Is there any serious debate that this isn’t the world we’re living in? As people have outsourced their entertainment, their muscles for generating fun have wasted away. Other people can’t be played at 1.25x speed. Face-to-face conversations don’t have alt-tabbing. So we retreat further into Screenworld, the only place that can give us the passive entertainment we’ve grown accustomed to, floating through life like the human blobs in WALL-E.
I worry that as we develop greater tools for entertainment, like VR and haptic feedback, our muscles will reach increasingly irrecoverable points of decay. Why go outside and feel the grass when you can put on a glove that zaps the sensation of grass straight to your fingertips? As we let our ability to entertain ourselves dwindle, we’ll lose much of what makes us human along with it.
There is no creativity, no art, without some desire and motivation to entertain ourselves. With entertainment on demand, why create anything?
Lest this seems too bleak, let me offer one upside of this hypothesis: Screenworld is not all bad.
Screens are the tool that allows this problem, but like all tools, they can be used to various ends. The problem is not the screens themselves. It is the type of activity they allow, which is what distinguishes phones and computers from television.
When Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985, the only type of screen we had were TVs. TVs are almost all bad, it’s very hard to turn watching TV into an active dialogue like you get with a book, let alone like you get painting.
But computers, and phones to some extent, are different. You can choose what kind of entertainment you pursue on your devices. Do you choose to push your locus of entertainment into the device, letting your muscles for fun wither away as you succumb to The Feed? Or do you use it as a tool for furthering your own internally generated sources of entertainment?
I find writing greatly entertaining. I know I’m a weirdo in that sense, but hey, this is fun for me. A computer is a phenomenal tool for making writing easier (and more profitable). It would be idiotic to suggest technology is all bad. A better analogy is that technology is a multiplier of your natural tendencies. If you can retain your ability to bias towards self-generated entertainment, then a computer becomes an excellent tool. If you are prone to sloth, looking for something to entertain you so you needn't do the work, then computers and phones will suck you in and never let you go.
This is roughly how I think about giving my daughter an iPad. I disagree with parents who give their kids iPads at the dinner tables in restaurants and let them watch cartoons or play games instead of being engaged. But I also disagree with parents who think iPads are all bad. If my daughter shows some interest in art, music, or writing, and she wants to use an iPad to further that interest, I’d be more than happy to give it to her. Or if she wants to read or create art on it while we’re at dinner, I’m not even sure that’s so bad – adult conversations are rather dull to a young kid. It’s all about making sure she retains her internal locus of entertainment. Making sure she knows how to Have Fun instead of expecting the world to provide Fun to her.
Compared to The Feed, other people are remarkably boring. They want to talk about things you might not want to talk about. They have opinions you might disagree with. They’re not perfectly airbrushed, not set to music, not doing jump cuts. Children are especially boring. How can you pay attention to your toddler when there are people who are wrong about stuff on Twitter!
If The Feed is the level of entertainment we come to expect, then the real world doesn’t stand a chance.
But if we can retain that internal locus of entertainment, that ability to look at the box of legos the world dumps at our feet every morning and build something exciting with it, we might just stand a chance.