On Screens

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by on 2017-11-01 | License Permalink

Ramble alert; a lot of these thoughts are stream-of-consciousness and unrefined. Be gentle with me.

I’ve been thinking a little bit about screens lately. This all sprung from reading a book (fiction) and somebody mentioning a screening process. If you’re a native English speaker, you may not have thought about the relationship between this word and the screens we interact with every day. A screening process is a filtering process. And we interact with screens every day, to the point where a common critique of our time is that we’re “addicted” to screens, and everything is filtered through them. This, of course, is not a new critique. But it made me think.

The etymology of screen is is an upright piece of furniture providing protection from heat of a fire, drafts, etc.. It’s easy to see then, how the noun turned into a verb. To screen something, to protect something from something else, some natural force. Obviously words change and evolve, but if we take that we may hold simultaneous meanings of a word as the march of progress bestows them; then I find it curious and scary that we continue to use the word screen to refer to the things that demand more and more of society’s attention. I mean, physically it makes sense – the screen as developed was (probably) originally designed to protect the mechanisms producing light, or the people from them. I imagine there’s some interesting physics going on regarding exactly how things are rendered onto the screen. Why not call it a display, then? We definitely use that parlance occasionally: “touch screen display”, “LCD”, etc. To display something is to present it, however. A screen is designed to protect – if we’re physically interacting with the screen by touching it, then why is it not an interactive display? Why still screen? What is it protecting us from? What is it filtering, and screening?

These are admittedly hollow observations – I think at this point, it’s fair to say that people are concerned about the filtering and screening process that takes place in the digital sphere of our lives. I repeat; this isn’t anything new and certainly not something you can’t find by asking a search engine “Why Facebook is bad”. I just think it’s interesting that we continue to use the term screen to refer to our windows into the rest of the world; if these were truly deep and meaningful connections with information, why is it being screened? It makes me wonder what will happen when we finally get those Brain-Computer Interfaces we’ve been clamouring for. Will those be treated as screens? We’ve already seen the heights and depths of human potential on the Web – from vile racists to support groups, poetry to Men’s Rights groups (note: Men’s Rights are the bad ones there), forming new relationships and enabling perverse stalking. It’s bad enough what these things can do to us now, so what happens when these things aren’t filtered through a screen? Humans have been erecting screens around themselves forever – from the old pieces of furniture to shield one from heat or (hell forbid) another human’s nudity. Perhaps there’s a reason we keep resurrecting the screen, ripping out its soul of semantic baggage and making it possess our new devices and creations. Perhaps shielding oneself from another is actually what we want? To force screens to live on, continuously changing what a screen can be, what forms it may take, rather than entertain the possibility of creating and sustaining a new interaction, unshielded by the enslaved spirit of our ancient screens? The obvious trade-off, is that by engaging with this, we give up some part of ourselves to the screens. We feel what the screens allow us, what we told them to allow us to feel. Most generations from the 1950s onwards have had screens as perverse, pervasive, guardians throughout their lives. It makes you wonder, was this humanity’s silent agreement with itself? To screen ourselves, protect ourselves from ourselves? We’re moulded by our interactions, and we’ve screened them for nearly 70 years. If our screens are our guardians, what does it say about the presence of vitriol on the web, over television? Is there a beast inside of us, even more vile than the one we screen?

How do you know it’s you in the mirror?