Enthralled by the screen, we came to question the necessity of privacy. We learned to let go of old values, and to require speed, convenience, portability, connectivity. We learned to desire our stats and the stats of others. We learned to accept the special way the screen reduced to equivalencies all things seen within its frame: NASCAR, cop shows, TV journalism, late night comedians, cat GIFS, and the office of the presidency. Gone was the idea of everything in its proper place.
More screen, less “meatspace” and IRL. More optimization, less serendipity. More jump-cuts, less syntax. More data, data, data. More info, info, info.
We embraced the self-promoting capacities and tools the screen promised us. We learned to expect an audience. We honed the skill of performing our lives in lieu of merely living them.
The screen created the “sharing economy,” the “attention economy,” the “gig economy,” and a special iteration of the “creative class” — a brave new world in which it seemed that everybody’s individual passion had, at long last, converged with their livelihood, while in fact hardly anybody was making a living anymore.
The screen provided us 2,000 songs in the palm of the hand but dealt a fatal blow to the solvency of musicians. The screen provided the texts of 3,500 books at a weight of 9.5 ounces but contributed to the dissolution of publishers and booksellers and weakened the infrastructure that supported and sustained authors. The screen empowered and accelerated the mobilization of righteous movements: the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street and the Million Women March and Black Lives Matter, but it exposed us as never before to the rapacity of advertisers, to the invasive scrutiny of our own government agencies under the PATRIOT Act, to a massive blurring of private and professional life, to the political meddling of extra-national bots, to the daily specter of harassment by anonymous trolls, and to amplified terrorist threats both international and domestic.
Our fixation on the screen forged new neural networks and sharpened into biochemical habit our reluctance toward the printed page, our acceptance of incoherent audio-visual stimuli, and our need to fictionalize our lives not only for others but publicly for ourselves.
The screen led us away from the book toward the illumined mirage, away from ideas toward memes.
The screen gave us new meanings: desktop, window, home, field, friend.
It redefined everything.
Now, here in the madding wake of the 45th American presidency, let us remember that once upon a time we impeached the screen. TV itself was made to stand trial before the U.S. Congress. The memories are hazy, the details obscured as if behind a veil of snowy static, but this happened.
America, a land of electronic images, big pharma, high-tech distraction, and endless advertising, seemed to be teetering on the cusp of an awful new reality. False impressions were the stock in trade, big onscreen metrics mattered most, and in the midst of this a white man played a version of himself on primetime. He was a celebrity and a winner, and he ruled the ratings.
The object of this man’s game was to claim knowledge he didn’t possess, and to provide an image viewers would anxiously fixate upon and maybe even idolize.
He was a man more closely watched than any person of any time before him. He became TV and TV became him.
The year was 1956. ...