City City Bang Bang, Columns

Surrounded by screens?

There was a small video snippet that had gone viral a few years ago. It showed an infant looking at a magazine and jabbing it with its finger trying to make something happen. Alas, newsprint is no touchscreen, but as a sign of the times, it is hard to come across a more apt summary of the way in which screens, and more specifically touchscreens have invaded our lives.

This came home to one in a particularly striking way on a recent trip to China, where the proliferation of screens made motion sickness an endemic problem. Now, India too is no slouch when it comes to screens, indeed, nor is the rest of the world, but in China, screens were everywhere. On buildings, in airports, outside shops, inside shops, in public squares, buses. And these were not discreet, self-effacing screens, but large, hi-res billboard size creatures on which things moved very fast. In a kinetic world, the world is served to us a constant blur, always in a hurry to be something else, somewhere else.

We live in a world increasingly populated by screens. Apart from our TVs and computers, we now have smartphones, gaming consoles, billboards, ATMs, Self-check-in kiosks, some refrigerators and so on. The list is large, but perhaps we have seen nothing yet for eventually everything will have a screen.

The dial was the earlier version of a screen. The communication it was capable of was limited, often coded, but it gave things a face. In objects like watches and gauges of various kinds, having a dial was a functional necessity. Not so in a phone, or at least the version that one grew up with. The rotary phone had an interface of course, that provided access, but beyond that it was enigmatic in its black silence. TV sets, not unexpectedly, had screens, as did radios, but they served a rudimentary purpose. Then came the early computers with their screens, which have a way of feeling more dated than most ancient artefacts, when we see them today. Modernity is cruellest to things we once saw as modern rather than to the truly ancient. Even the early wire-free phones usually had no screens. Only since the mobile phone arrived, did the screen became ubiquitous.

The screen animates the machine. It imbues it with life that inheres within, and seeks connection. It reveals its workings, giving us a running commentary of its inner life. It displays what we input into it as well what it does with that information thereafter. A narrative layer is added to technology. In the early days, a command on the computer would make the cursors blink as it racked its brain furiously to do our bidding, and after a while the output of its exertion would come spluttering out, on screen or via the rattling of a dot-matrix printer. In many ways, the gadget becomes wholly contained in the screen.

Screens today are the new surface of our digital landscape; an ever-increasing proportion of our experiences is increasingly located on these small pieces of real estate. The touchscreen takes this a step further by allowing our intentions to become more direct and demanding. The mouse had already helped us to communicate our desires more directly, and the touchscreen does away with even that additional effort. With the touchscreen the entire surface comes to life, eager to do our bidding.

Screens indicate a certain level of programmability. Wish fulfilment seems to be the new code. Technology is no longer limited to fulfilling one or a narrow set of pre-determined functions. When the machine is flexible enough to do what we want rather than only deliver what it is capable of, the screen becomes even more valuable. The mobile phone is one such device which has increasingly become a quasi-universal machine hosting several kinds of capabilities that are crammed into its tiny body.

The screen has become the wallpaper of our lives. It serves as a new kind of visual layer that the physical world dons, creating alternative realities for us. Screens can bring us a simulation of everything else the world has to offer but lack any structure or architecture of their own. The screen is the new skin of our lives; by digitizing the abstract, the real and the human, it has carved out a large share of our time and attention. The city has, by employing human design and intention, already created a visual landscape that is far removed from nature. Screens add yet another layer that is not only removed from nature but from any form of physicality itself. It owes no allegiance to anything that appears on it; it hosts whatever quivers by. It exists in permanent transience, content is just that, something that darkens its surface for a brief period time before something else equally transient, takes its place. If earlier, billboards and neon signs made for a kinetic cityscape, today it is the ever-liquid screen that is taking over sense of the physical. If we are not surrounded by screens, then we are immersed inside them.

The screen is shaping us culturally in profound ways. Kevin Kelly, writer and early digital evangelist, classifies people into two types- People of the Book and People of the Screen. The former are, in his words ‘good hardworking people who make newspapers, magazines, the doctrines of law, the offices of regulation, and the rules of finance. They live by the book, by the authority derived from authors.” People of the Screen, on the other hand, he argues ‘prefer the dynamic flux of pixels…Screen culture is a world of constant flux, of endless sound bites, quick cuts, and half-baked ideas.” This is a recognisable description of the world we live in today. Exciting and terrifying. Energising and fatiguing. Stimulating and numbing. Screens are much more than technologies of interaction and display, they serve as the modes of perception that are shaping the way we think, feel and experience the world.

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