Screen Addiction

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The first thing I did after arriving at our hotel room was collapse onto the bed and pull out my phone.

I was in a tiny town in Germany with my boyfriend. He had met me after I’d traveled for two weeks for my European modeling tour, and we had traveled all day to get here specifically. At that point, it felt like all I could remember doing my entire life was moving from Point A to Point B.

But we had finally made it—to the next in a series of Point B’s, at least.

Hello, my name is Katja. You may think I model for a living, but really I just professionally move from place to place. Tomorrow would be yet another train, but for now I wanted to introvert. So I started scrolling through Facebook.

After a few minutes—okay, if we’re being honest, it was more than a few—my ignored boyfriend cleared his throat. “You sure are checking your phone a lot,” he said, somehow managing to sound nonjudgmental.

I still bristled. He hadn’t been working on the road for weeks. He was in a completely different headspace than me. He didn’t know how I was feeling…but he was still completely right.

I was missing Germany, and I was missing the experience of our first big international trip together. I wasn’t “there”—I was letting myself be distracted by my familiar screen, and details of people’s lives an ocean away. From that point on, I resolved to be more here, to connect with people that I’m actually in a room with, and to put my phone away. Lesson learned.

*          *          *

After learning a lesson like that, you see it everywhere. Months later, I went with a group of friends to the concert of a lifetime. We had seats practically in the front row, watching our favorite singer perform not on the screen that the rest of the stadium could see, but right there on the stage.

Throughout the concert, even while the music was playing, my friends were on their phones. Not just to juggle logistics within the group and to take pictures, but to text their partners and friends who couldn’t be there. And yes, even to scroll through Facebook.

Worse, seeing my friends do so made it far more tempting to check my own notifications…

But I would clearly never do such a thing, right? I was cured of my screen addiction. I didn’t even have the Facebook app installed on my phone. I mean, sure, I would check things online frequently when I wasn’t around people. Research and keeping up with the news is part of the work of writing. And yes, sometimes I got stuck writing and I’d distract myself with some mindless browsing.

So what if my phone suggested the Facebook icon as the most visited site on my browser? As anybody who follows me knows, I don’t post on social media much. I lurk on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But like I said previously: that’s writing work. That’s research. I clearly did not have a problem.

To prove my point, when I got home I checked my browser (which keeps track of how many times I’ve visited a website since the browser was installed). According to Firefox, I had loaded Facebook pages only…49,222 times. And that was just my computer. I check it from my phone far more frequently.

So, Houston, we have that problem.

On top of feeling like a total hypocrite, I decided I needed to fix that habit quick, fast, and in a hurry. But as soon as I started cutting down my screen time, I felt like I was missing out on different viewpoints and new ideas. I was worried my writing would suffer, and my modeling and my social connections too.

I knew what I was experiencing was just FOMO, but it felt like a threat.

What if I wasn’t keeping up with new writing ideas and was now wrong and outdated? What if something big happened in a friend’s life and I missed it? What modeling information—references, blacklists, industry chatter—was I giving up? Would it ultimately hurt my career? What was I not learning? I knew what I was experiencing was just FOMO, but it felt like a threat.

There are plenty of posts out there about “how” to reduce screen use. They recommend things like deleting the app off your phone, installing programs that block access, and only using your phone at specific times. I tried all of them, and they worked—more or less, if I devoted enough willpower, which I didn’t always do. But what need was my incessant screen-checking fulfilling, and could I meet it another way?

Connection is one of the things I value the most, and tech is now often the medium through which we do it. Sure, there’s a difference between direct connection and disperse, passive connection—say, the difference between a text from a friend and scrolling through Facebook. I’ve heard lots of people decry the latter, but I’m not so sure. For example, there are Twitter personalities that don’t even know I exist who have become a part of my social life. My IRL friends and I discuss their ideas, and I’ve changed what I think and how I view the world because of the power of that passive connection.

Which leads us back to me, and my apparent inability to stop checking Facebook. The lesson that I learned was an important one I seem to keep learning: even when you are positively sure you don’t have the same problem as everybody else, even when you think you’ve already fixed it, you might be wrong.

But I also realized I already had the solution, thanks to a conversation in a little hotel room in Germany. It’s about being present. Previously I thought it was just about being present with the other people in the room—be there for the trip, be there for the concert.

But it’s also about being present for my work. Now when I get stuck with my writing, I try to context-switch with my feet instead of my screen. I change where I’m working or I go for a walk, so I can stay engaged in the project. That cut my Facebook time down drastically, and without feeling like I was missing out.

Most importantly though, I think the trick is to be present with myself. Connecting with people and listening to new ideas is incredibly important and absolutely has its place. I certainly haven’t cut my screen time down to zero. But if I want to be a part of the conversation, I can’t always just listen. I also have to think and create and respond. I can’t constantly drink from the fire hose. I’ve also got to have time to process and interact with it all.

So did I check Facebook while I was writing this? Yes, yes I did. But that page view count is crawling up a lot slower now. And hopefully, I’m more present for the things that matter—present when I’m spending time with people, present when I’m receptive and learning, and present when I’m creating.

AI and Nude Art

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In case you missed it, computers are now creating art nudes.

But this is not a “robots are coming for our jobs” essay. When I first heard about AI-generated art nudes, I thought I was going to enjoy this latest advance in my field. I really wanted to—I’m a futuristic sci fi geek after all. But I didn’t.

To understand why requires a little bit of background on AI-generated art. I think it’s a pretty impressive achievement, but it’s important to realize that AI doesn’t magically create art from a void. The programmer has to seed it with a data set—a pile of existing art that has the traits they want the AI to learn from. Whether that’s music, visual art, or even all the chapters of Harry Potter, there’s always a starting point—and that point is introduced, however indirectly, by a person. If and when AI starts coming up with its own data sets not created by humans, I’ll start worrying about our robot overlords. Until then, not so much.

That said, this has never stopped me from enjoying this type of art before. I giggled my way through the AI-generated Harry Potter chapter. I’ve written with AI-composed music on in the background. But these art nudes bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I read one of the creator’s tweets about his art:

“The AI *always* paints heads and faces the same way; with this weird yellow/purple texture. Have no idea why, but I like it.”

He’s right, and it is kind of cool. But I found it interesting that he didn’t remark on the other color scheme that all these nudes have in common. Namely that they all have the same skin tone: very distinctly white.

On top of that, all these nudes are obviously women—they’re even referred to as such in the text, without a second thought that “nude portrait” wouldn’t immediately equate to “female nude portrait.” And then on top of that, even though these figures are surreal at best, they’re still slender. Which means that even from a computer-generated blob, you can tell that these “women” are, well, white and conforming to societal norms of feminine beauty. It bothers me that we recognize this as nude art because it’s playing off the cliché that nudes are all of skinny white girls, even when they’re deformed like melted wax.

It’s an easy mistake to make. From the results, it looks like the researcher stuck pretty closely to conventional Western art canon for the images he started with for his data set. And even without a degree in art history, you can probably guess that said canon is dominated by dead white guys, and all their biases.

That’s one of the problems with AI right now. It’s a reflection of what we put into it. And unless we are aware of our own biases, we just perpetuate them.

The problem isn’t in the tech. The problem is in how we thought to use it.

I love nude art. I feel that the strength of posing nude is the ability to show humanity in all its variety—gender, race, shape, age, etc. This set of AI generated art feels like a step backward culturally for a step forward technologically. And let me be clear, the problem isn’t in the tech itself. The tech is awesome. The problem is in how we thought to use it.

Our culture changes depending on how we depict it, and how we talk about it. It’s a conversation. And art is part of that conversation. As an artist, I firmly believe that I am responsible for the art I put out into the world and what it says. It’s my responsibility to educate myself as to the consequences of my choices, and make the best art that I can. This is one of the big reasons that I pose nude: I think it’s incredibly important to show the nude form as non-sexual. And it’s why I do my best to encourage diverse models to pose as well, because we need to normalize that too.

So yes, it’s impressive that we can now generate art with a computer. But if you want to do so, you need to realize that you aren’t just creating a piece of cool tech. You’re also an artist—welcome to the conversation. We’re finally starting to move past some really repressive norms. Let’s not reassert them for the sake of a new tool.

And before I make it sound like this is all about people creating new technology, it’s not. If you’re a photographer, or painter, and all of your subjects are young, white, skinny, conventionally pretty naked girls, it might be time to take a hard look at your art too.

But here’s the beauty about art being a conversation: we’re all learning together. We’re all bringing ideas to the table so that we can share and grow. None of this is a condemnation of us as human beings if we make a mistake. I have posed for images in the past that I now consider problematic. I learned—and I try not to fuck up in the same way a second time. I don’t hate myself for it. I just try to put better art out into the world next time.

So let’s definitely keep exploring AI-generated art. But let’s also keep the conversation going too. They’re not mutually exclusive; they can and should support each other. And we have so much more to learn.