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.