Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 15, 2008

screens and screens

Christine Rosen says, with trepidation, that “we are becoming people of the screen.” Kevin Kelly says, with eager excitement, that . . . “we are becoming people of the screen.”

The chief problem I have with this phrase, whether used by Rosen or Kelly, is the casual and confident use of the phrase “the screen.” This is what the Marxist theorists used to call “false reification.” There is no such thing as “the screen”; there are screens, plural, and they are not all the same. In the course of a day I might be faced with many different screens — computer, television, movie theater, iPhone, digital camera, Wii, Kindle, ATM — and each of them calls for something different from me: different movements of my eyes, different means of physical interaction, different forms of cognition.

Each of them resembles certain other visual experiences. One might call forth the same skills I need when viewing a painting, or a photograph. Or a human face, perhaps. Another may require of me similar forms of attention to those I would use in reading a map, or scanning a mountain landscape in search of a navigable path (and also in search of potential dangers).

If we hope to achieve intelligent evaluations of our various screen experiences, we need to be attentive to these differences; we need a far more nuanced vocabulary than we commonly employ. My recommendation is that we start by reading Albert Borgmann — say, this introduction to his 1999 book Holding On to Reality: the Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium, a book few of us have caught up with yet.