26 August 2018

BEHIND THE SCREENS

Ellis Cashmore, Jamie Cleland and Kevin Dixon. Screen Society. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

'A Screen-Less World' is the title of the introduction to Screen Society. It’s now hard to imagine a world without the ubiquitous presence of televisions, cinema screens, computers and smart phones. We are shaping (for good or ill) our personal and collective history through a profound interaction with the screen. Yet as authors Jane Cleland, Kevin Dixon and Ellis Cashmore point out our relationship with a projected image can be traced back to 1696 when the magic lantern is demonstrated in England.

The birth of cinema is circa 1895, with the Lumiere Brothers. Radio, TV and polarised cameras then appear in the 20th century. Videotape, video games, DVDs and the establishment of the web spread out our screen-looking to a global level of individual intimacy where we can now hold an image of nearly everything on the planet, on a small device, in our hand.

“To see a world in a grain of sand.
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand.”

Perhaps our web searching may not be of such Blakean infinity of promise. Yet the smart-phone creates the illusion that our trawls on the internet will be never-ending. But what harm is our screen activity doing to us? And what are the positives for human evolution? Is the screen are friend or enemy?

This remarkably sane and balanced book gives us the most rational social analysis of screen technology that I’ve ever read. It talks not of cultural apocalypse – the screen world bringing death to our old literacy – but of the emergence of a complimentary literacy instigated by us with the 21st century title of “Screenager.”

“We use the term to describe a generation of people that use their screens” many times per day.” That’s about 50% of us. Only 18% describe their screen seeking habit as “several times per day.” 1.4% consulted their screens once per day, 0.4% less than once per week. Unlike previous generations that are defined by years of birth, Screenagers tend to span the years.”

You would then assume that all this screen activity would have a shadow side – wholesale addiction. However apart from a tiny minority of addicts, the authors conclude (convincingly) that we are not losing our humanity (our social skills) but discovering how to socialise, through a deep mediation, with the screen that’s becoming a new and radically different form of communication. The authors selected 2000 people to give them feedback on their questions about screens. One participant, when asked about the possibility of addiction, said that screens provided an alternative and concluded that “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is the human connection.”

The authors did not approach the writing of Screen Society with imposed preconceptions about screen watching. They didn’t have a thesis to prove. Their 'hands off' approach challenges a lot of the accepted ‘wisdom’ and stereotyping that’s assumed to be our screen-life

Chapters are devoted to analysing the screen effects of addicts, politicians, children, people who troll, the gender question, gambling and gaming, health, dating, consumption and privacy. Each chapter is admirably fair, succinct and jargon free. The emphasis always on the participants whose views shape the book and not the authors – they give, as much as possible, an objective summary and opinion of the evidence ordinary people have presented to them.

In their survey of screen dating they find it to be fraught with contradictions resulting in relationships seen as over-idealised but usually temporary, free (too free?) and even claustrophobic (no mystery, too much driven with information before a meetup.).

“All symptoms listed above are significations of a liquid modern existence lived through the medium of the screen.”

The phrase 'liquid modern existence' could be the appropriate tag-line for the entire book. For the authors it’s neither a good or bad state that our screen existence has created for us. We are not trapped they say. For it is we who have created this way of being. And one day there might be another means of communicating that will no longer require the screen. The authors cannot imagine that time yet. And like them I put my trust in us controlling the technology and not some malign dictator.

Certainly the structures for a highly controlling state have been setup. Agreed. But, as yet, there isn’t any such institutionalised Orwellian control - though we have a tense relationship with freedom. With all the pleasure of exploring the screen there arises the possibility of losing all your personal information. 'Screenagers' have a term for that state. Its “a relaxed terror” Such a mix of comfort and fear makes it sound like a synthesis of the fiction of Orwell with Huxley: a sort of agreeable political control appeased by a subtle biological re-structuring of our feelings. A dark payoff kept at bay whilst we engage with the screen?

A cool, detached observation augments many of the insights and information to be found in Screen Society. All screen-enthusiasts and screen-detractors would gain greater understanding and clarity, about their activities, by reading this remarkable book. I can’t recommend Screen Society highly enough. -- Alan Price

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