All posts by H.E. Whitney, Jr.

Can’t see the empty life through the screen

As state shortfalls have led to severe budget cuts for public universities in the United States, I was amazed recently when I walked into the building that housed my academic department here in Florida. In the atrium, students waited, legs crossed, to meet with their professors or study for their classes. What was peculiar was that a television was now mounted overhead in the atrium on a platform (there was none there before) for all of the atrium’s inhabitants to behold: an altar of a cubic god demanding unwavering gazes as tithes. At first I wondered why or how this university expense, a wide screen television, could be justified given the university’s economic situation (it has already considered cutting 21 academic departments and roughly 300 faculty and staff from the payroll) but I thought that this scene, a television in an academic building, indicated a yet greater manifestation of culture: our undivided, unyielding allegiance to the screen or electronic mechanism as the standard way for conveying information and exhausting free time.

Not only does the television blare in school lobbies or invade classrooms posing as “instructional tools”, they have also become permanent fixtures in banks and grocery stores. While standing in line recently to cash a check at the Bank of America, I noticed a television, mounted high above everyone, seize the glances of many people in the room. But if the television did not draw everyone’s attention, other more ‘personal’ screens did. Some impatient customers frantically thumbed their cell phone keypads as if twiddling to a tune from a 33 1/3 record running at a 45 rpm setting; if not, they repeatedly flipped open their phones to scan for text messages from a confidant, family member, or business partner. The screen, although handheld, still occupied their attention to the point where they were not aware of the movement of the line: because of their fixation with their personal screens, these individuals ignored the dynamic social space of which they were a part. Needless to say, when the teller announced his or her availability to assist a customer, the teller relied upon a screen, in this case, the screen of one of the bank’s workstations to relay account information to customer. But soon it was announced that the server was down and that it would take a few minutes to reboot. To “fill” this “empty” moment, everyone resumed their gaze of the television screen or cell phone display. Strangely enough, during this “empty” moment, actual human interaction was to be avoided at all costs unless, of course, the line was being held up by someone either staring at the television for too long or wearing out his or her fingers sending text messages.

Now as I reflect on the camera screen and observe its images, I am astonished how the screen affects the longevity of events. Two ladies have asked me to take their picture on the campus at Landis Green. In physical time, the moment of their embrace came and went, but the need to capture it for progeny persists, and the snapshot preserves that moment indefinitely in a two dimensional representation. There is perhaps nothing inherently bad about using the snapshot to capture an intimate moment: for the snapshot provides to future generations a vague intuition about the pictured person’s personality, a personality that is eventually chomped to shreds by the shark’s teeth of time.

Now let’s look at how the television screen captures the death of a famous politician or rock star. The death came in an instant: it happened and now the person’s life is over. Unfortunately, corporate media preserves the moment of death: the moment of death must not be let go of for an indefinite amount of time. You, the viewer, are supposed to get an idea of the dead person’s life through a collage of images, sound clips, and interviews with the deceased person’s family, friends, and colleagues. From this pre-packaged, media construction your idea of the dead person’s life ought to be similar to the idea you have of a person that you know personally. A myth technology wants you to hold is that its ideas of a person or thing can be just as “real” as yours: in fact maybe even more real. So aside from the questions about a technologically created/dictated morality that I posed in the previous section, how does the technological extension of events well beyond their actual occurrence distort our views? Because technology allows us to represent events indefinitely, we come to view time as something that we can manipulate or ultimately control. The cell phone seems to give us ubiquity: we can be contacted at any hour, any day, at almost any point on earth. The desire to be godlike is perhaps a universal endeavor and nothing serves this desire better than technology. The most important question to ask is whether we believe our humanity can be fully appreciated when it is embraced in the now. It is perhaps a sad state of affairs when an event cannot be grasped or enjoyed for what it is, but rather how it either can provide some future benefit (by extension) or fit into some preconceived representation of a past whose veracity we do not seek to challenge but only confirm.

So what we have in these cases are instances of not simply the ubiquity of the screen but the human willingness to offer, as a sacrament, an entranced stare or absolute attention without question or reservation to the screen: no matter if the social space is dynamic enough to require active engagement with it. But, taking an evolutionary perspective on this, I would contend that what is necessary for any organism to thrive (i.e., to enjoy its environment for whatever life affirming benefits it may provide) is to be able to consciously engage the whole of its environment. Failure to do so would, in aesthetic cases, amount to ignoring the orchid in the garden, or in a more disastrous scenario, ignoring the predator behind the bush. Now the screen is a part of the environment, as the orchid and predator are also parts, but is the screen or technological trinket which fixes our mental and physical attention so significant that it would require us to completely ignore the remainder of our social or environmental dynamic: a dynamic that enables us to thrive in the first place?

We vroom comfortably down the autobahn of indefinite technological modification (thanks in part to the inexhaustible need for indefinite profit by the corporations that produce, market, and standardize these items) and I’m not sure if our ideas of appropriate social behavior, in relation to technology, have caught up with technology or ever will. The guy who is talking loudly on his cell phone in a public space will probably become more belligerent if we ask him to lower his voice or move to another area. The fundamental error in our relationship with “personal”, handheld technological devices (or perhaps any mode of technology) is that we think they license us to claim the public space for ourselves instead of sharing it. Every piercing bleep that startles the relative quiet of a library, each “Top 40″ ringtone that slices through a dinner table conversation, or every careless, earphone encouraged stroll into a busy intersection is an invasion of or an imposition upon of the dynamic public space.

I want to avoid quaint commendatory statements about old-fashioned modes of communication or social practices that seemingly new technologies improve, minimize, or make obsolete. But there is still plenty to criticize. We call our employer to apologize profusely for being late when the automobile breaks down. Any breakdown of the machine almost always seems to obscure human error or responsibility (perhaps the car broke down because the owner failed to schedule regular maintenance), while its success must always reflect human ingenuity, foresight, or intelligence. The point here is that technology can enable us to make good predictions (or offer excuses for inefficiency if a required task goes undone) but that it can also, through our absolute dependence upon it, cut us off from information that would otherwise enable us to make better judgments or predictions about the world.

If it is not our conscious awareness or intellectual capacities that we sacrifice to the flash of the screen, then it is our unwavering obedience to mechanical efficiency that goes unquestioned. We allow the answering machine to screen our calls: to put people into discrete 0/1, accept/reject, yes/no, pleasure/pain categories where they are to be viewed as objects to be sorted. You switch off the answering machine to talk to the desired caller but find out that they have bad news or are unpleasant and not worth the time to converse. Likewise, the voice that sounds like a telemarketer may actually have a check for you for a million dollars with no conditions attached but you would never know that because you either hung up on the call or erased the message before hearing it in its entirety.

The deity of the screen, our religious gaze, and praise of the technological aesthetic has finally drowned good advertising sense. While our cities and now countrysides are littered with static billboards and signs, the screen, with its compelling display of moving, “lifelike” images, has now invaded natural landscapes. Of course this may have been the real dream of machines in Blade Runner: recall the animated Coca Cola advertisement of the winking woman who enchanted us. We seek the “lifelike” in our mechanical confections, but often at the expense of other organisms or resources. Once the landscape is cleared to make room for our flickering displays, how many human or animal communities will be displaced or simply annoyed? Where will we obtain the electricity to power these signs?

While no contemporary barroom or tavern would be complete without a television or jukebox, some drinking houses now display monitors solely devoted to showing ads endlessly: often advertising other bars or restaurants where the same types of monitors reign from overhead thrones. These monitors are sometimes situated in odd spaces. At one particular establishment in my town, if you are sitting at the bar but angled away from the main television (in the center of the bar), you nevertheless are able to look squarely at the ad monitors which are mounted at angles away from the center of the bar. So if you are not inundated by the flurry of ads on regular television, your restaurant or bar can provide you with ad-only television. Clearly this is the height of materialist insanity: the idea that advertisements, in addition to work and leisure, should occupy time.

The Best Buys, Circuit Cities, Radio Shacks, Staples, Targets, Walmarts, Alltel and Sprint stores have now become our art galleries where the gallery attendant, the retail clerk, marks out an assembly line existence: to unpackage the product, mass market the product, and repackage the product when it is sold. In an assembly like fashion, the product is then unpackaged by the consumer, mass marketed to his/her friends, and the process is once again set in motion. I jokingly suggested to a lady friend who was having trouble getting her husband to do “cultural things” that if you want to get middle aged husbands out to traditional art galleries, the art galleries need to ditch paintings in favor computer monitors, LCDs, and flatscreens. Or new cell phone prototypes.

As a species that produces and contemplates art, we have nonetheless begun to reject the contemplative power or interpretive mystery of traditional art in favor of art that has “ready-made” or practical virtues. In other words, technological value. Yet technology in itself has no value. But as long as we favor technological efficiency above all other values (for example, the value of protecting and contributing to the social dynamic) and think of the machine’s way as the only way that matters, we only seem to be deifying the screen or the flickering electronic display, which is merely to place faith in the mechanical.

I am somewhat awestruck as my eyes trail the staccato of words I type across my monitor: I am reminded of a stock exchange ticker flowing across the tube. And herein lays the perceived irony of the situation: I have appeared, by using the screen, a computer, its word-processing programs, and internet servers (in a word, a system of machines and/or automated mechanisms) to undermine technology: the very system I rely upon to communicate ideas.

“Technology,” you say, “has provided greater life expectancies than before, cured disease, reduced travel, reduced work, and enabled us to communicate at great distances easier and faster than in the past. It has given us these things and more!?” This I do not deny but these benefits come at a cost to our humanity, resources, and integrity of our natural and social environments. I only ask us to consider our relationship to technology and discern whether or not the efficiency or personal convenience it offers must always supersede community interests and harmony. This is obviously a question about what types of social values we are going to accept as we relate to technology, and whether we would rather have technology to dictate or create such values. I believe that allowing technology to construct and dictate our values for us–is always a mistake. Increasingly, culture links technology to the so-called absolute or physical sciences, which are presumably governed by immutable laws. No student of science or the history of science would ever think of such a connection or describe the history of the physical sciences as an unproblematic, mistake free progression towards absolute truth.