The Invasion of the Screen People

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

It was late summer in the Heartland. A simpler time, with only vague fears of Y2K troubling my anticipation of brisk breezes and the deepening color of autumn. Thunderstorms decorated Iowa’s western horizon. I had pulled into a mega-gas station at the intersection of I-80 and I-29. Scores of semis towered above the SUVs and sedans, all swilling diesel, ethanol and high test before easing out to follow the blacktop’s broken white line through the gathering dusk and into the night. I faced the sleek screen embedded in a wall-sized pump; touched the credit payment icon, swiped my card, tapped “no receipt,” lifted the hose and jammed the nozzle into the side of my pickup. Gasoline fumes opened my nostrils and hit the roof of my mouth, mingling with the sweet perfume of distant rain. My eyes slide across the ranks of pumps to the unbroken cornfields that surrounded the incongruous concrete intrusion. And Peter Jennings spoke to me: “Tensions heightened in the Middle East today . . . .

I spun around to locate the celebrity anchor, stunned that he would join me out here on the road. He was nestled – as serene and composed as ever – on the touch screen perched above three grades of Texaco. I stared in disbelief as he inserted the news of the world between the bass rumble of Kenworths and the soprano squeal of travel-tired children. It was a macabre moment, like encountering a chimpanzee in top hat and tails, dining in a posh Manhattan tearoom. But my disorientation was swiftly banished by an unbidden thought: “I wonder if you can change the channel?”

That was when I realized that The Screen People had successfully infiltrated Earth. The last six years have only affirmed that realization. Screens have become the primary communication interface in the industrialized world. As I write these words, several screens assist me. The iBook’s screen reflects the words of the essay, and allows me to toggle to internet maps that refresh the memory of my Iowa trip. The TV screen gleams off to my left, enabling me to keep an eye on both the Olympics and a line of thunderstorms moving through the area. My cell phone screen identifies callers, making it possible to accept vital calls while relegating others to voice mail. Last night I watched a film projected on a large screen overlooking the lawn of the North Carolina Museum of Art. Earlier today I shot photographs, composing the images on the LCD screen of my digital camera. “They” are everywhere.

This ascendancy of the screens raises a number of questions for those of us who study the intersection of technology and communication. Consider, for example, the notion that people maintain four essential communicative guises in relationship to mediated messages: creator, consumer, assessor, and facilitator.

Creator is the active guise; participating in the making of a message. The process can be an individual crafting a personal expression for another individual, a group, or an audience of millions. It can be a group effort. It can range from purely presentational to dialogic; a transactional negotiated process between creator and audience.

Consumer is predominantly an individual, passive guise; one person chooses to consume a message or experience created by another – reading, listening, or observing. Consumption can be interactive. Interactive consumption ranges from performing works authored by another, to participating in virtual space constructed by, and dependant upon, another.

Assessor embodies the observational, analytical, reflective guise. Assessment is the individual’s reasoned, supported evaluation of the impacts, effects, implications and relative merit of messages structured by others. Assessments are often delineated by objective, medium, area of social or political influence, academic heritage, inclination or method.

Facilitators provide the interventionist guise: an individual or team utilizing specialized knowledge, skills and/or tools to aid other individuals in the realization of perceived communication objectives. Intervention ranges from interpersonal through organizational to international. It encompasses both technical training and conceptual exploration.

The predominance of screens in contemporary culture will significantly redefine each of those relationships. While their influence is still unfolding; clearly two paths diverge in this technological wood. We can either accept a traditional passive evolution, or bestir ourselves to – perhaps for the first time in history – plan the course of our own social evolution. Let me explain.

The evolution of communication technology has been more serendipitous syncopation than measured march. From speech to mime to music to writing to printing to painting to film to telegraph to telephone to radio to television to computer to Internet, the relationship between society and the tools we use to communicate has been a bartered negotiation. We, the members of continuously evolving cultures, are faced with similarly evolving communicative, expressive needs. Technology morphs to meet those needs. We fill the technologies with content, and in the process discover new needs, which in turn beget new technologies, and so on and so on. It is a negotiation because neither side of the equation determines the final path of evolution. It is a bartered negotiation because each side demands value from the process; society demands better communicative, expressive tools, while the industries that provide the technologies demand profit.

Negotiation implies compromise, and compromise rarely yields the exquisite. More often the result has been merely the mutually acceptable. And so it has been in the bartered negotiation of media evolution. Papyrus wasn’t perfect, but it was better than clay tablets. The printing press had flaws but also advantages over the scribe, the telegraph bartered speed over linguistic complexity, cells phones offered mobility at the cost of fidelity – and all yielded profit to industry and power to government.

Bartered negotiation in the world of the screen people has been the same – only different. When we examine the tools that drive the converged environment of the screen people – whether the special effects in Lord of the Rings or three-way calling on our cell phone – we find ourselves confronting computers, networks and software. And in that world we find a strange confrontation between complexity and elegance. The post-modern world often seems immersed in a love affair with complexity, a celebration of fragmentation. And nowhere is that worldview more manifest than in the design of software intended to facilitate expression. New versions of Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and Office, proliferate features that regularly relegate former experts to the status of “newbie.” The irony is apparently unintentional, lost in the marketing realization that “more features sell new releases.”

Any experience with an audience – singular or mass – reveals that rampant complexity confuses, while precise elegance empowers the depiction of the most intricate message. As we face the 21st century, the inclination is to allow the marketplace to drive the development of the communicative palette. “It has always ‘worked’ before.” But “before” was never in the hands of so few. Bertelsmann, Newscorp, Disney, Time-Warner, Viacom, Sony, Vivendi and Reed-Elsevier control most of the content distributed in the world today – from print to the internet. Microsoft, Adobe, and Macromedia decide the nature of the tools we use to express ourselves. The clout of huge profits in a concentrated marketplace makes quality secondary to popularity for all those companies.

Before was never like now, and the stakes have never been so high. We are not talking about cornering the market on widgets. The issue concerns a few colossal companies that control the communicative content of our world, and who also shape the very languages we use to express the truth and beauty of that world. To date the palette they have provided is flawed in three dimensions: Intricacy – the excessive inclusion of features in software that excludes all but the specialist from fluency. Discreteness – the inclination to provide tools and messages devoted to, and hence restricted to, a single medium, and, Commercialism – the hegemonic power of the marketplace that decrees that whatever the other characteristics of medium or message, significant profit must be among them.

In the film Dead Poets Society, John Keating exhorts his students, “Carpe diem. Seize the day.” He challenges them to “do something extraordinary.” It is time for the academy to do something extraordinary. We must reclaim the expressive imperative; we must define the palette. Certainly, the expressive tools provided by the media cartels are fatally flawed. But so are some cherished models from the “teach and publish” world of the academy. We linger in the solid predictability of prose upon the printed page. We are comfortable with formulae unfolding neatly across the board. We treasure heads bent over bluebooks as sunbeams dance with dust motes, reminiscent of chalk dust from bygone years. That world is gone. Yet many of our forays into “courseware” seek to recreate it.

Screens encompass a new world. It is our responsibility to create, to use, and to teach new, powerful, transparent languages and tools for elegant expression in the converged digital environment of that reality. Carpe Diem.

Links of Interest:

1. Roger Chartier on the role of on-screen texts

2. United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force

3. MIT’s web magazine on information technologies

Please feel free to comment.


  • The cell phone compromise (fidelity for mobility) is one I’m particularly fascinated with. Sometimes corporations push a product on people and they reject it. The company can’t turn a profit, so they’re forced to improve the product. What products have had flaws that pushed you so far that you refuse to use them, even if it means a significant loss of productivity/connectivity?

    Is there any way to reduce the complexity that renders creative tools unwieldy while still maintaining creative control for the creator? Some forms of choice liberate while others paralyze, but is there any easy way to tell which is which? Are simplicity and creative freedom mutually exclusive in creative tool design?

    How is the “teach & publish” world likely to change?

  • Christopher Lucas

    Screens and Media Studies

    Dr. Schrag has written a more effective call to action for Flow that I could have done. Not carpe diem, but carpe scrinium – sieze the screen (apologies to Latin lovers everywhere). Bill Gates has been saying for years that Microsoft must try to control screens if it hopes to maintain its position. Whether that sounds like the voice of Lucifer to you, or like Moses, or Nostradamus, it certainly sounds like prophesizing and not merely for Microsoft’s shareholders. As Schrag notes, control of content in screen culture has narrowed drastically over the last generation. Still, the academy loves the its screens. Our libraries, our archives, our journals, our courses and vitas, they’re all migrating onto the Internet. Nonetheless, the institutions of large swathes of the academy legislate against producing exclusively for the net – or in Schrag’s terms, “creating,” for screens. Given Flow’s somewhat heretical position in that cosmology, perhaps this is a good space to discuss possibilities for a net-based, screen-oriented academic media studies. To survey the prospects for arraying ourselves against, amid, or alongside (whatever your wont) the dominant powers in screen culture. Or is it really a change that’s needed? What would be required for such a change? What will galvanize it? Who is willing to speculate?

  • challenge to educators

    Perhaps the most provocative claim in this provocative column about the overwhelming ubiquity of screens in contemporary culture comes at the end, when Schrag enlists those of us in the academy to acknowledge that we live in such a culture and to adapt our pedagogical strategies accordingly. It is a call for the reclaming of the screens, currently controlled by the media giants. I am curious, though, what exactly are the contours of this “new world” that screens encompass, especially as it relates to education and scholarship. I understand the need to acknowledge the media universe in which we live, and to alert our students to its everyday impact in their lives. But what is unclear to me is the imperative to seize the screen ourselves. What would this look like, in a practical sense? Are we to abandon the printed book in favor of the interactive website, the blue book exam in favor of some multi-media project? And if so, to what aim?

  • the screen revolution~ DVD

    The ubiquity of screens and screen culture in contemporary society marks a discernible shift in aesthetic, artistic, pedagogical, formal, industrial, and economic structures and practices. From a cultural modality based in and on excess, commonly associated with a post-modern cultural aesthetic, the proliferation of screens Dr. Schrag is positing coincides with a move to an access based information media culture. No longer is it sufficient to theorize the cultural masses as “junkies,” individuated or otherwise. Today we must reconcile the proliferation of screens in relation to content, the shifting dynamics of creator, consumer, assessor, and facilitator, and the technology enabling these shifting dynamics. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the DVD has saturated the marketplace with unparalleled efficiency and success. DVD enables audiences access to filmmakers, actors, the process, special effects and publicity materials, at least superficially offering audiences the ability to shift between passive/interactive consumer to assessor, facilitator, and through their home computer, creator. DVD is reshaping economic and industrial structures, encouraging further conglomeration (as is evident by the recent MGM buyout) in the hopes of mining studio backlogs. DVD is influencing pedagogy, reception, home theaters, exhibition, and distribution practices. The format offers a unique opportunity to capitalize on convergence while creating that delicate balance between elegance and complexity. Increasingly, film and media studies professors are showing up on DVDs, offering informed commentary and theoretical engagement with the text. As an academic AND DVD Producer, content production offers a unique site for “seizure of our screens.” Through innovative and comprehensive engagement with the process, the people, and the text, we can swing the pedagogical pendulum. We must be proactive, we must seize the opportunity afforded by new technologies, ourselves recognizing the imperative to move from assessor to creator and back again.

  • Response to Elliot

    Elliot poses a couple of interesting questions: “Some forms of choice liberate while others paralyze, but is there any easy way to tell which is which? Are simplicity and creative freedom mutually exclusive in creative tool design?”

    I think one way to distinguish between liberating and paralyzing choices is to strecth our own use of the software. I tried to put a piece together tonight for my graduate seminar using powerpoint. It is a tool I am very familiar with – more than a decade of use and I teach workshops in it. But I really pushed it combining music, narration, original art images and extensive text animation. When it worked it was very nice, but it crashed twice and failed to run several more times. Fortunately, experimenting with the software was part of the class – so failure wasn’t a pedagogical disaster. But it became clear to me that as we try to push presentation software into creative, expressive modes the fit will be far less than ideal. The answer, I contend, is not to do what the software will let us do. Rather we must design the software that does what we want it to.

    And no, I don’t think simplicity and creative power are mutually exclusive. They just have yet made sense in the marketplace where the dominant software applications are traditionally complex.

  • Response to Bryan

    I agree, Bryan. It strikes me that DVD authoring may allow us to get back to the “begin with a blank screen in your head” perspective that defined the mid-ninties when CD authoring was moving along. Toolbox and Authorware were incredibly cumbersome – but at least the mode of expression remained flexible. But then Berners-Lee and Andressen gave us the web, and ever since it has been HTML or go to hell. Web-based languages are in many ways like Latin in Middle Age Europe: the only route to power.

    I haven’t explored DVD authoring software, but have proposed a grant which would allow me to do so. I hope to have that opportunity.

  • Response to Allison

    An excellent cautionary note, Allison. “Just because we can” is a lousy reason to do anything. I don’t see it as and either/or situation, or even a both/and – more like “all of the above.” What I envision is a form follows function reality. Assess the primary function of a communicative effort and then use the communicative form best suited to that function. The current problem is that the available forms were designed either for old uni-modal functions, or were designed for maximum impact in the professional/specialized marketplace.

  • Pingback: FlowTV | Sculpting a Digital Language

  • Information hum

    Dr. Schrag notes the abundance of screens in today’s world. But it seems to me that these tools of communication have a one way direction. I am not communicating with these screens that tell me things. It is not a two way conversation where I am encouraged to provide my input and shape the direction of the conversation. Rather, I feel like I am being talked AT, and in many ways, being second-guessed and somewhat manipulated. Ultimately, these screens that relay news information as Dr. Schrag experienced watching Peter Jennings while filling his gas tank, are meant only to catch my attention to a tid bit of (sensationalist) news, hold it there, then bring me an advertisement for dish soap or some new SUV. Underneath all of this, advertisers must have realized that billboards don’t work very well. The most effective advertisement is animated and catches our eye in places we least expect: like gas stations.

    Yes. “They” (the screens) are everywhere. Airports, waiting rooms medical clinics, gas stations, and I find them highly annoying. As if being in an urban setting is not enough of an overload, screens have to be everywhere, throwing more stimuli my way in the guise of information I need. And I speak here not only about the large TVs hung precariously from the ceiling in medical clinic waitrooms, but I speak also about the other screens that are around me. That is, the mini-screens of cel phone owners who answer their phones in public places and proceed to have conversations.

    While I often find these conversations to be interesting, sometimes revealing rather juicy little tidbits I will eventually incorporate into some fiction piece somewhere, I often reflect at how this type of “screen” as Dr. Schrag calls it, and its public use has changed over the years. A month ago, I worked on a film project in an old building on the campus where I go to school. The building was about to be torn down and we had free reign to alter the building as we chose. I found three phone booths on the second floor. Three phone BOOTHS! Yes. There were three separate mini-compartments constructed into the building with sliding doors provided for privacy. It made me think about the times I had spent in southern Spain and India where people paying to speak on the phone had entire small rooms or booths to themselves, with doors meant to keep the conversation private. I am also old enough to remember holding on to my mother’s hand while she slipped us into a phone booth to make a conversation, shutting the sliding door behind us.

    Phone booths today? If someone were constructing one, it certainly would be from a sense of nostalgia, because public phones into which one drops a few quarters are disappearing quickly, and no one seems to care about protecting their phone conversations from curious listeners.

    Today around campus and around downtown Austin, these pocket “screens” of cel phones relaying information to the phone owner offers a rather “public access” to the conversation. I am intrigued at how society has made this switch from the private protected phone booth conversation to the phenomena of five people all waiting for the bus, all having public conversations about wives, husbands, cheating boyfriends, illnesses, bad sons or daughters, or failed mid term exams; five people apparently unconcerned about how others perceive and interpret their conversations.

    I think this has something to do with the observation that Dr. Schrag made about the “Screens are everywhere.” We have become so used to being inundated by the noise of conversation and information: from our co-workers, the radio, phone calls, others on cel phones, the mounted multitude of TVs, iPods, that it has become something of a mélange, a hum, where individual words are no longer distinguishable from the mass. Like living in a tropical forest where the sounds of frogs, insects, and birds become background noise, we no longer pay attention to the hum of information conversation, unless we actively try to pry out a loose word or two and make a larger meaning out of it. Thus, most people don’t think twice about how their public cel phone conversation fits into the larger hum. To them, it is not about private lives becoming public. It is about contributing a negligible amount of noise to the modern hum of communication technology.

  • Milos Milosavljevic

    Freedom of Creativity Requires Knowledge

    As Robert Schrag’s description of the limitations of PowerPoint have demonstrated, the freedom to be creative requires nothing more or less that knowledge and skill. A user of a software tool will always be limited by the creator’s vision of they ways in and the purposes for which the tool can be applied.Just as the individual who was able to maximise the efficiency of software tools in the early stages of IT development, today, when a much wider scope of the population is able to implement tools created by others, the creative edge moves on to those who are knowledgable of the langauge and syntax used to create these tools, and who are able to use the alphabet and grammar of software development to create their own tools and content.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *