People love their screens these days

And they almost seem to prefer them to human interaction.

This week at work I had an interesting interaction with a patron. As a refresher, I work at the Circulation desk of the library — which is also where I am conducting research for my final research paper.

A popular commodity we have at the library is the ability for students to rent out laptops — we only have 20 laptops (10 Dells and 10 Macs) so they are often checked out quickly. At the Circulation desk, we have a flashing information screen that lists the number of available laptops and study room keys so people do not have to wait in line. As a key or a laptop’s bar-code is scanned, the information screen is updated instantaneously. Oftentimes, someone will walk by, stop to glance at the screen, and then walk away because they can see that we do not have any study room keys or laptops available.

The other day, someone dropped off a laptop at the desk. As I was returning it and wrapping up the chord, another student approached me — his eyes glued to the information screen.

Without looking at me he muttered, “Laptop?”

No doubt he was reading the “1 out of 10 Dell Laptops are available” on the screen.

Before I could answer, his eyes darted quickly to look at me and then back to the screen. A moment later I told him we did have a laptop but he did not seem to hear me because the screen held his undivided attention. The way this patron stared determinedly at the screen was almost like he was challenging me to say we did not have a laptop available — because he had the ‘proof’ on the screen to refute me if I told him otherwise.

Ironically, if he had looked at the laptop that was sitting on the desk about three inches away from him he would have seen real physical proof, not a digitized version of it, that we did have a laptop available. Instead, he seemed to rely more on the information that the screen provided him rather than what he saw ‘in person’.

In this scenario, the patron depended more on the screen’s information rather than information he could acquire by simply by looking around. I wondered why the screen made it so easy for him to ignore me and the rest of his ‘immediate’ world.

This incident at the library connected to our class text by Dominic Boyer. In Boyer’s book, The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era, he writes that “[…] journalists were quite concerned with how their news reports ‘sounded’. The aesthetics of writing radio news was clearly attuned to the acoustics of reading aloud. And, yet, the journalists never actually read their reports outloud themselves […] one could argue, of course, that reading silently is itself an auditory as well as visual practice” (Boyer, 113).

Even though the news journalists never read their reports outloud, they were still concerned with how they sounded to readers. This suggests that reading can be as powerful as someone speaking because it combines a visual element with one’s own ‘voice’. Arguably, reading from a screen may hold our attention more than print sources because many screens demand our attention. It is not difficult to see how the combination of moving images, brightness, colors, and even sound can attract us towards the screens information; however, the interaction I had with the library patron suggested that he preferred the screen’s information rather than my own.