The Screen Culture

Last Independence Day, in the evening, I was standing on the steps of the National Gallery in Washington to watch the fireworks. People around me were watching them too – via live video feed on their iPhones.

The novelty factor may have been the reason, but inevitably the imposing spectacle of fireworks was reduced to a tiny screen in the palm of someone’s hand. It’s like looking at the world through the wrong end of the telescope. Great and real phenomena are cut down to our size, converted to representations that are under our control.

In his book Let Them Eat Data Chet A. Bowers rightly says: “Computers reinforce or marginalize culturally specific patterns of thought and communication in how the technology encodes the cultural assumptions of those who design them.”

Real experience is being marginalized and at the same time the technological distance from the world – one that is lucrative for some people – is being reinforced. So authentic experience (authentic humanity) is being diminished.

This in itself is cultural decay. And in addition, the implicit message is that commercially packaged experience is the real thing – or maybe even better.

Historian Glenn Olsen also points out in The Turn to Transcendence that theorists like Spencer, Comte, or Marx believed that human beings are “moving toward a shared global system” coming out of the bourgeois spirit.

This idea of the shared system is part of modern progressivism. It is implicit in things like the “packaging” of experience. The fireworks become little patterns of lights on a glass screen. This is progress? In our culture, apparently yes.

Evidently, the technology involved is not neutral. In fact, it is downright hostile. And yet the Church is not training people to evaluate the cultural freight of technologies even though their moral lives depend on it.

This could become a central part of teaching people what being human means. After all Christ is the perfect human being and the Church bears the face of Christ, however much we disfigure it.

Turning from this technological and emasculated “experience” to a different kind of shared experience, one that is more Christ-like, we could consider for example that:

Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other – my prayer for him – can play a small part in his purification. (Benedict XVI)

The pope invokes the sheer depth of real human life, with the emphasis on “human.” The complex of shared experience has its full palette of human elements, in our case, the shared wonder of the watchers of the fireworks, the experience of being a group enjoying something, something on a shared day that is part of our national history.

This is experience as the inescapable flow of sounds and ideas and sensations and movements that we are born into. Abstracting from it comes at great cost and a loss to our humanness.

Moreover, the fireworks also are very importantly above us, even if we know how the individual chemical mortars work. For a short time such an experience transcends our control and our individual perspectives and is a moving hint at the experience of transcendence, a vital part of being human.

Screens are used for many good purposes, from the purely convenient (airline departures) all the way to the more sublime (finding the text of a poem on the Internet). But we also interject screens, at times, between ourselves and the roots of experience. We are who we are through many thousands of little experiences – as Benedict reminds us – experiences that are uplifting and informing and also, yes, niggling.

Experiences can also be truncated or limited by technology. Nevertheless our need for fine-grained experience does not disappear even when we become so “sophisticated.” How real experiences fit together is something we will only appreciate in hindsight.

The screen culture is frequently a screened culture. Historically, it filters out certain experiences when other institutions are doing the same. Newspapers only report on certain subjects, TV channels only speak to certain demographics, churches only tackle certain subjects and so on.

The deeper human qualities get screened out, usually because they are not a matter of consumption and self-indulgence. Allowing screens to come between others and ourselves at the supermarket, in our cars, at the dinner table, during meetings, erases the chances of a real human experience and the chance passes forever.

Using screens in this way diminishes human culture. But it also interferes with our sense of the interconnectedness of all Being – which bodes none of us any good.