12 September 2000

Screened out

On the culture of electronic imagery

In the 1950s, people imagined that by now we would all be floating around in flying cars and eating nutrient pills for lunch, but would still be communicating by radio telephone or by firing paper messages through a network of pneumatic tubes. One thing no one foresaw was the extraordinary omnipresence of the screen in modern life. Everywhere we look there is another glowing alphanumeric display pregnant with the promise of instantaneous oracular gratification. What has happened?

Though screens are constantly offering to show us things, our evolution into a screen-based culture has actually been largely predicated on concealment. In its original sense, a screen is an opaque sheet of material used to hide something from view. And indeed, the increasing number of screens that we negotiate in daily life work to conceal the true substructure of our interactions. When we use a cash machine, for example, the screen in the wall acts as an antiseptic barrier between us and the unfathomable human machinery of the bank. The Caller ID function on mobile phones enables us to choose not to answer calls from undesirable interlocutors. And the graphical user interface of today’s computers exists precisely to screen the user from rebarbative alphanumeric command lines and strings of hexadecimal gibberish.

The framing of a shot in television or cinema, meanwhile, also has a job of concealment to do: the image is chosen so as to exclude the mechanical paraphernalia (boom microphones, cables, secondary cameras and so on) whose appearance would compromise the realistic illusion. Now, however, as the screen of television news claims to be the arena of unmediated truth — so that British newspapers nowadays rely for circulation not on factual news coverage but ever-expanding features and sports sections — this rule is often broken in a sleight of hand that aims to increase “realism”. Just as, once colour photography had become widespread, old-fashioned black-and-white gradually became the new medium of vérité reportage, so it has become routine for television documentary and drama “accidentally” to let the camera shake, to allow its wires and mics to intrude into shot: in this way, it openly admits to one aspect of its artificiality and thus screens off more cunningly the editing and scripting decisions that make it just as invented a process as ever.

Virtual reality, meanwhile, is in one sense as old as the first television set. This is because the development from cinema screen to television and computer screens involved a reversal of light’s direction. Light is thrown onto the cinema screen by the projector; the screen reflects the light into the spectators’ eyes. But in the cathode-ray tube screen, the image originates deep inside the machine: electrons converted into photons are sprayed directly at us with no derangement of their path. This induces a novel sense of a virtual space existing somewhere behind the screen. As a child, I knew that there was nothing behind the cinema screen, that it was merely a large sheet of white cloth; but I did imagine that I could climb inside the television.

This illusion has now been entrenched and massively enhanced by the spatial metaphor of computer-screen “windows”: frames through which we imagine we are seeing deeper into the virtual system. The fact that millions of people have become so comfortable peering through such “windows” has laid the conceptual groundwork for the uniquely voyeuristic character of much of today’s internet-only entertainment, involving webcams, spycams, shower-cams and the like. In its high level of customisability of the user experience, the internet replaces a community of viewers with an atomised collection of individual viewers, none ever quite seeing the same thing. The television programme Big Brother could only have become successful in a cultural atmosphere thus seeded by the new internet paradigms; and, in fact, the television episodes of Big Brother are functionally mere highlights of the true webcam experience that is available 24 hours a day over the internet.

The space of the computer screen differs from that of a framed shot in television or cinema in that we know there is not, and never was, anything at all beyond its boundaries. The invention of “scrolling”, whereby more of a text document or web page can be unfurled than currently sits on the screen, attempts to palliate this fact; yet there is a curiously vertiginous aspect to reading VDU text. If you are not holding a physical document or book in your hands but reading it on a computer, it is not so immediately apparent just where you are in the text overall. You could be anywhere; and so you are lost. Further, because we have been writing text on screens for longer than we have been asked to read it, all text presented electronically retains a fundamentally provisional character: ghostly, impermanent, and so not authoritative. This has been a godsend for writers, who enjoy the new-found freedom constantly to rearrange material without retyping, but it denies to readers the fixity and finality they require. Reading, for the moment, is one area in which the general population will not so willingly migrate to a thoroughly screen-based experience.

Consider also that what does exist within the computer screen’s boundaries is perforce arranged in a fantastically bureaucratic pattern. The metaphor of the computer “desktop” was useful in that it furnished spatial metaphors with which to arrange our work — putting this file over there, or in that folder, invokes no corresponding spatial rearrangement of information on the computer’s hard drive, but it helps us by replacing the computer’s obscure mathematical operations with an approximation of how we work with paper in real life. At least, how some of us work with paper. The computer “desktop” is an approximation of clerking and filing cabinets; it immediately skews the valency of the computer screen away from concepts of leisure or play and towards bureaucratic duty.

Further, while a real-life desktop may be spectacularly messy — piled high with overlapping reams of notepaper and research, half-open books and the paraphernalia of smoking and drinking — and yet perfect for its user, who knows exactly where everything is, the computer screen will not sanction such arrangements. We are forced into a pattern of working that is deemed logical and desirable by the book-keeping corporate culture — and certainly makes its life easier when, say, we come to file our tax returns — but punishes the woolly, messy, ineffably human paradigms that are in fact so much more efficient.

It is in direct rebellion to such an affront that the rise of the videogame has deliberately re-engineered the screen as a zone of pure play. Britain saw its first videogaming boom in the 1980s, largely among children. But in the last five years, the success of Sony’s PlayStation has repositioned the videogame as a cultural form acceptable to a discriminating adult audience — and especially to a new generation of techno-savvy young British adults who are rightly sceptical of passive acquiescence to what the television screen autocratically delivers. With the advent of the riotously imaginative aesthetics of three-dimensional videogames such as Tomb Raider or Quake, the screen is finally stripped of its opacity and deceit. The entire screen becomes a fully transparent window onto imagined worlds that the player can navigate and explore on her own terms.

The videogame is the cultural form that aims not to transfer some pre-existing process onto a screen — as early cinema and early television, for instance, both sought merely to furnish a proscenium arch for the transmission of theatrical plays — but is designed so as to exploit the virtues of the screen’s plasticity and infinite representational possibilities while avoiding its vices of partial revelation. It is the videogame, too, that reverses the pernicious, isolating effect of screen culture — the dressing-gowned internet addict at 3am, the silent family comatised by an evening of soaps — and conceives of the screen as an arena of sociable play. For most videogaming is pursued among groups of friends, who gather around the television and console as previous generations gathered around the Whist table or Monopoly board.

The screen itself is, like all technology, value-neutral. It is neither dumb nor clever. But the culture’s reaction to its omnipresence is certainly not value-neutral. To survive, the old artforms must certainly abandon their hobbling sense of paranoid competition with screen-based entertainment. Theatre and opera increasingly feel the need to use video or film footage on stage in order to hijack the pleasures of cinematic experience, and modern British novels are increasingly disabled by camera envy, thinned down to largely dialogue-based, short scenes, as if their highest ambition were to be filmed as a three-part drama on ITV. But it must be remembered that theatre and novels on their own terms can offer forms of indispensable cultural nourishment that a screen never can — a visceral sense of community with flesh-and-blood performers; a sympathetic internal landscape of ideas and emotions. They must play to their unique strengths or eventually be subsumed by the tyranny of pixels.