Regaining Equality by Reaching Out Through The Screen (Part 1)

Although I haven’t announced it, my goal for this site is to publish at least two posts per week. Most of the time, this will probably result in one lengthier post appearing earlier in the week, and What I Liked This Week (WILTW) rounding it off during the weekend. That’s pretty much all I’m going to be able to manage, in between the day job and The Filmmaking.

This week, however, you’re getting four posts. Or, more appropriately, one mega-post split into three parts, and then your weekly WILTW. I guess there just was a surplus of fury and romance this time around. Probably this happened because the gun control debate has me riled (the children who died last month are still dead, and still shouldn’t be dead, and more than a couple of people are standing in the way of desperately needed reforms) but also I’m pretty happy on a personal level these days.

Anyway, without further delay, here’s Part 1 of Regaining Equality by Reaching Out Through The Screen. I will publish Part 2 tomorrow, and Part 3 on Friday. As always, I encourage readers to respond via Twitter or Facebook, and please definitely share anything that you like.

Thanks for reading.

It should go without saying that our country and the globe are both big places, at least in comparison with the lens through which we view and experience them: our personal point of view.

But as a reader pointed out to me in response to my post about Sandy Hook, our personal point of view, oftentimes these days, is increasingly aimed at a screen. A computer. A television. A phone that ceased to be a phone a long time ago.

Her (paraphrased) words: “I’m not sure a world in which we’re so much ‘more connected’ to each other helps anything – I think it leaves us less humanly connected that ever before.” In addition to writing this, she smartly (and importantly, in my opinion) pointed out the irony inherent in the fact that she was delivering her opinion via Facebook. That’s an important detail, given where I’m about to go with this discussion.

Stick with me. This is a long one.

This issue of connectedness vs. connection, for me, is vastly interesting. Much has already been said about it, and the conversation continues, so I’m only going to focus on one particular problem I have with the way many of us use technology.

The aforementioned reader is also particularly worried about the dangers facing members of coming generations who are born into a society where so many of us choose The Screen over, say, a face. I share this concern, though I think the fact that she and I are both worrying about it indicates an awareness on the part of our generation that this is an important issue that needs to be dealt with on an individual and/or family level. One that, hopefully, at the end of the day, won’t differ too much from similar debates certain members of the boomer generation had about us, in regards to video games and computers, and which their parents before them had about television. It ends up, for me, a matter of vigilance on the part of the family as well as on a social level. I’m not as worried about it as I used to be, because I believe that such concerns, while legitimate, stem more from a need to catch ourselves up to accelerating technologies and technologically-based social networking systems than anything else. Though this doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do tracing our compulsions towards these technologies and sourcing out our subsequent responsibility to use them in a healthy and/or productive way.

This is the real imperative facing our generation and future generations: parsing why we feel compelled towards The Screen, in the particularly clumsy interactive ways in which we are lately compelled towards it in its evolving forms (phones, tablets, smart TVs). Answers as to what we should embrace, what we should worry about, how to respond as our lives continue to depend on computers and networks and information technology, are likely to follow.

I would argue that it all begins with understanding and acknowledging that our relationship with The Screen is as emotional as our relationship with the world itself, as glimpsed from our own point of view. Further, taking this statement at face value,  I believe we have some waking up to do, when it comes to realizing the extent to which the gatekeepers of The Screen have traditionally leveraged the influence they enjoy as programmers of its messaging to take advantage of this relationship.

If you can’t come with me on that, stop here and go catch up on Mad Men.

Again, our country and the globe represent a vast, interconnected system. This is true on both a natural level (the Earth as an organism) and a manmade level (society as a network of interdependent beings working together, if not in unison, to survive).

In contemporary terms, with rare exception, we enter into this system incrementally, by proxy at first, as we are raised (or flung) into adulthood.

In America, in particular, we begin to fully belong to the world, in prevailing terms, when we enter the workplace and begin purchasing and working our way through whatever corner of it ends up in front of our individual lens, either by choice (if we are “lucky,” and increasingly fewer of us are lucky, because the system is rigged in favor of the privileged) or necessity. These are the facts of American life. You grow up, it’s difficult and strange, and then eventually you settle into some place or another, do one thing or another, and at some point it all bleeds together and the difficulty and the strangeness evaporate except at times of emotional upheaval (birth, death, other rites of passage). Perhaps you shuffle things around now and then, in terms of where you live and what you do, but in the end we’re all just making money and handing over money and in between we keep ourselves busy. Increasingly, we keep ourselves ever-busy, on an individual level, in front of some permutation of The Screen.

Except there are a few key differences between The Screen as it was and The Screen as it is now. First, the television has lost its status as the primary target of the individual lens. Even those in our populations who are older are finally being forced by the move towards electronic publishing and recordkeeping to form some semblance of computer literacy. Additionally, there are the phones and, now, the tablets. The Screen has multiplied. Under our “control” it’s various forms coexist and interact. It is now “normal” for many people to engage with a computer or phone or tablet while watching TV.

It is not the concern of this post to judge questionable examples of such behavior, per se. There are clear, easy-to-see repercussions, on an individual and a societal level, to dividing our attention so completely for an extended period of time. Also, I am guilty of pushing my face into The Screen a little too often, so I can’t judge. However, there is a fine line between withholding judgment and the subsequent failure, in the place of judgment, to take a realistic perspective on the repercussions of our actions.

Which all a very long way of saying that we are collectively, and on average, far too passive in our use of technology.

To borrow some metaphors from my vocation: we are not a fixed lens. Our perspective can be likened to a fixed lens – which has only one point of view, that can be played with to varying degrees but which is unable to ever see everything on its own, even when focused on a dynamic and engrossing subject – but we should never be so self-restrictive or so presumptuous to assume that one point of view is capable of taking in the whole world.

Only in varying our perspective, switching out lenses, as it were, and experimenting with different views and different combinations of views, are we able to responsibly say that we have looked at something. Only then does it become easy to remember that The Screen is only that. A microcosm of a particular worldview. A picture of a thing that, however simple or complex it may be, or however steeped in the abstract of the imagination, has a real world equivalent which, whether we acknowledge or not, exists in relation to us in way that is neither tactile nor energetic.

Even more crucially, a face on a screen is not a face. It is a representation of a person on the other side who, despite any artifice thrown in the way of each of you, exists in reality in another place, made of organic stuff and vibrating with feelings.

Our initial relationship with The Screen was a passive one. It was crude, by today’s technological standards. The television blasted its messaging at you, and you could only respond insofar as you were able in the real world: by communing with those in your direct vicinity, or with your wallet as advertisements fought over each other for the privilege of your dollar. And prior to YouTube, a select few among us enjoyed the privilege of being able to clumsily and incompletely communicate within the screen, participants in the messaging conducted through subsequent programming.

This relationship has clearly changed, now that we have the internet and now that we carry it in our pocket wherever we go. Especially in the last several years, with the rise of social networks, the narrative of The Screen has begun to more closely align with the narrative of life. The faces that appear to us from the other side are increasingly the faces not of traditional messengers but rather our friends, our loved ones, perhaps even our enemies instead.

This is still all very new. And so, we worry. All of us. On the ground, people like me and you, we worry that we spend too much time on too many screens – which we’ve already discussed as a legitimate but ultimately inconsequential concern. We worry while experts and academics and reporters squabble amongst themselves about similar concerns, about the moral and social repercussions of our changing habits, all of which represents a debate made more on their own behalf than ours. They aren’t to be blamed. The one-way narratives they are used to continue to either evolve or expire, leaving whole swaths of them behind while a few of the smarter ones abandon themselves to the vagaries and the chaos of the new narrative. And as we all worry, those in the towers that loom over our cities (our literal overlords), scramble to adjust the narratives and the delivery systems they have long controlled, such that they may maintain or reinforce the old, crumbling relationship between us and them.

All our fears are justified. Make no mistake: The Screen, by virtue of our increasingly symbiotic relationship with it, is the personification of control. Say what you will about that, argue against it if you’d like (just don’t ask me to listen to you), but the fact of the matter is that we are, at least on structural terms, on the precipice of a future many of us have long feared. The Screen is everywhere; we can’t go back.

We shouldn’t want to go back. Especially those of us whose lives have been dictated by those traditionally in control of the The Screen and the message (most of us), we shouldn’t want to go back. Because as it stands right now, we know more about how to win control of The Screen than they do, and we are better positioned than ever to regain some of the dignity that the average American has lost over the past several decades. 

The truth is written in the mangled façade of what we still call Facebook, which rose to prominence once, in part, because its interface recalled an Apple-like regard for beauty, in comparison to the visual and architectural mess than was MySpace. The fact that the visuals of Facebook have turned into a conglomeration of icons, links, and flashing lights – whereas it used to look like a communication hub – tells us all we need to know about where the site is headed and/or where we’re letting it lead us.

Facebook is becoming just another business hub. Especially since it’s IPO, which has unsurprisingly hastened the rate of the reverse exponentially, the site is in a state of regress. What began as a means of connectedness now begs for and demands your connectivity. The push to make Facebook something more valuable than what it is – and, just so we’re clear, I believe Facebook has value and can co-exist as a business and as a historical touchstone of the social networking movement – has perverted its legacy as a primary virtual epicenter for the movement away from the traditional one-way narrative of The Screen and towards a more widespread and all-encompassing visualization of the sort of cultural exchange of information, ideas and emotions that has been taking place on the internet since its infancy as a popular destination.

Do you know why this is happening to Facebook? It’s because the monologue of The Screen has become a dialogue, and those who have historically controlled the messaging don’t want this.  Since it’s happening anyway, you can be sure that those in power will do their damnedest to seize one side of the conversation fully and not let go. That is what has worked for them in the past. That is why they bought the news.

Make no mistake: the war for your divided attention – for frequent access to your many screens – is on. Most of those in power don’t really know what they’re doing, because they’re old and because they’re incapable of knowing what it’s like to need The Screen as we need it. But they’re not completely stupid, they have resources, and they have time. Especially while we idle, continuing to devote more of our waking hours and our energy on trivialities than on improving our lives and the world, they have the time.

And why shouldn’t we idle? It fits the traditional narrative structure of life, as we experienced it growing up in front of our televisions. We can’t be blamed any more than we can be forgiven – and I say that because at the end of the day, regardless of causality and of the difficulties ahead of us, it’s our responsibility to seize control of our share of the dialogue ourselves.

There is no evil in business. Companies that make The Screen and fill it with imagery and provide us with the tools of communicating with one another and sharing information – as well similarly connected/invested corporate powers – they can’t be completely blamed for wanting their share of control. Evil comes from people. On the side of such organizations, they are evil who leverage their control of The Screen against humanity, perverting truth by doubling-down on the insistence that the limited view of a one-way narrative is legitimate and righteous. On the side of the people, we are evil who neglect to question these practices and damn their practitioners by failing to take our attention and our wallets somewhere else.

Only in understanding our true relationship with the new normal of communications technology, in acknowledging what it means about us and what it means for us going forward, can we begin to regain ownership of our side of the narrative. I believe this process, not new laws, or progressive policies, or more new technologies, will help us find our way back to true individual empowerment and true collaborative democracy.

But we have to want it. And it’s infinitely easier said than done.

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