The pictures are better

The other day I started to tally up how much of my life is spent sitting in front of a screen.

I get up, and almost the first conscious thing I do is to check my emails and overnight RSS feeds. Then it’s off into work, where I spend a good part of the next eight-plus hours in front of a PC typing, emailing clients and suppliers, and controlling [sic] project finances before leaving for home. Then in the evening there’s all my home emails and surfing to do, not to mention all the social media stuff and the blog posts, before I finally throw in the towel and go and spend a couple of hours relaxing … by watching the TV or a DVD.

In all, that’s got to be something in the order of 13 hours a day spent in front of a screen, and that’s on an average day, not when there’s something all-consuming on. That’s shocking, isn’t it? I remember as a kid that my parents used to get anxious if I spent more than a couple of hours in front of the TV screen; the idea that, as an adult, I’d spend half my life in front of any type of screen would have totally traumatised them.

It also shows just how visually-orientated our world is these days, how much of the information we receive comes to us through our eyes. When I’m not in front of a screen, I’ve always liked to get away from it all by reading – even though that’s yet another visual stimulus, and when you have tired eyes suffering from screen burn then reading is often not the ‘rest’ that you actually need.

Maybe that’s why I’ve found myself increasingly turning to audio sources in the last year or two. In the past, listening to the radio meant having some background music on from Radio 1 while I worked at the PC screen, but now I’m finding more and more “appointment listening” on Radio 4 instead, while the advent of BBC Radio 7 had given me access to radio/audio drama that I’d never had before.

Plus of course there’s podcasts. Since getting an iPhone and throwing myself entirely into the lap of iTunes for auto-syncing of my audio files, I’ve started regularly listening to podcasts from Mark Kermode, Radio 4 Friday Night Comedy, Guardian Media Talk, 6 Music’s Adam and Joe, Times Online’s The Bugle – and many, many more. And then there’s the audiobooks you can get as well, such as Chris Anderson’s book “Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business.”

The podcasts and audiobooks may have started off as a way of passing the commute time into Waterloo, but now I’ll happily take my iPhone off somewhere and listen to a podcast at home as well, in preference to still more screen time.

I’ll admit that sometimes the lack of a visual component can still be a problem for me: without a visual focus, the audio side can get overridden by visual “noise” so that when I’m walking along, my brain gets distracted by visual cues and I suddenly realise that it’s shut off processing the unconnected audio input and I have to rewind the podcast to find out what I missed – thank goodness for the new iPhone software that gives a quick 30-second rewind, it proves that a lot of other people have that issue as well. (I usually discover that it all went in subconsciously anyway, but ‘subconsciously’ isn’t a proper way to enjoy a book in my view. Either conscious, or why bother?!)

All this led to an interesting moment last week, where an image popped into my head of a coastal resort that I couldn’t quite place. I could picture it clearly – the houses and holiday homes ascending a steep hill up from the bay in which the expensive but oddly slightly dates boats sat moored – but for the life of me I couldn’t quite remember where this place was.

And then it came to me: it wasn’t a real place at all, but the setting in a BBC audio drama production that I had listened to a few weeks earlier. And yet the picture in my mind was completely clear and fully-formed, even though the drama had done little more than to provide odd lines of dialogue here and there to make it so. (The drama was “Paul Temple and the Lawrence Affair“, by the way – a 1950s radio detective show well worth listening to. I confess, I have developed a bit of an addiction for this brand of audio crack cocaine.)

It was startling how effectively the images had been realised by the combination of an excellent radio production and the willing participation of my brain and imagination. If I’d seen this on television then I would have remembered things like camera angles, lighting, film stock – I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to TV production – but the fact that the visual cues were all missing left it to my brain to create a far more impressive reality.

The pictures really are better on radio.

And not just radio, either: this takes me back to being a kid, where I learnt to love books because of an obsession with the Target books of Dr Who. This was in the days before videos and DVDs, and the BBC didn’t see the value in ever repeating episodes of a mere disposable kid’s show, so the only way you could ever experience a past Dr Who story was to pick up one of the ever-expanding line of Target novelisations (Mark Gatiss just did a lovely Radio 4 documentary on the Target novels recently which was a joy to listen to.)

I remember one of my favourite Dr Who books back then being “Dr Who and the Zarbi” about a world full of acid pools and ants and butterflies and evil mastermind larvae. It was a magical tale, and many years later when I heard it was out on DVD I was keen to see the original serial after all these years. Suffice to say, it was a crushing disappointment compared to the book – the production was cheap and horrible, the pacing was glacially slow early-60s style, and the whole thing looked sadly risible. But thanks to my love of the book, and the images it implanted in my seven-year-old head, I still found that I could get over the problems of the visual production and embrace the story itself.

I wonder today whether the current generations of kids – with the DVDs and computer games and multi-channel TV offering and advertising stimulus everywhere you look around – will have that experience, that ability to create a world for themselves thanks to the words of others either on the page or in audio productions. Are we managing to terminally suppress their imagination by removing their need to ever have to create pictures for themselves because it’s always provided to them? I hope not, because it seems to me that such things tap into such a core part of our psyche that it’s a direct link to our creativity and imagination – things that without which, the world is a duller, plainer and more disappointing place.

Or to put it another way: the pictures are better and the world more vivid when we remember to take a screen break.

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