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Wrapped in Grey
Friday, October 11, 2013
THE television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. So pronounced Prof. Oblivion in the David Cronenberg film “Videodrome.” As the plot of the film goes, the cathode ray tube, the primary instrument in TVs which allows the projection of broadcasted images also emit radiation that create tumors in our brains. These tumors generate an experience of hyper-reality for those afflicted where the distinctions between real and celluloid life are blurred.
The film was sounding the alarm on the triumph of mediated TV experience over reality offered by television in the age of technology-driven mass communications. At the heart of the critique provided by the film which echoes the warning offered by a number of scholars is the way television has seemingly superseded human experience.
Things did not happen unless they have been validated to have happened in television. Human experience was filtered through the idiom of the idiot box. And before long, it wasn’t life that was mirrored on TV but life instead became the poor copy, a drab imitation, of the gay neon life of TV.
But the film was made in 1983, before the advent of the worldwide web and the slew of communication technologies that followed its development. The television had an architectural presence primarily in living rooms of homes and occupied an imposing physicality. That was also its limitation. It cannot be brought anywhere. So watching the television still remained an event, with the attendant venues and schedules. And there were still spaces and periods when we can escape its radioactive hue.
But something has replaced the television a couple of decades later. There are these new contraptions called smartphones which we bring anywhere or should I say bring us everywhere. Following Prof. Oblivion, it is now possible to say that the capacitive touch screens of our smartphones have become the retina of the mind’s eye in this day and time. On this media platform, an amazing conflation of the senses of seeing and touching is possible.
If one looks at the evolution of cultural technologies in the past three decades, one can say that the smartphone is the singular device that combines and integrates various developments in the field. It is now the primary device for cultural consumption whether for entertainment, mobile productivity or communication.
With the internet connection as its added value, the smartphone has distinguished itself from television in terms of its user-demand feature. Whereas television made us hostages through the one-way flow of information from the networks and then our television, making us cultural zombies at the mercy of the manipulation of the networks and big business, the smartphone and the internet service that comes with it make cultural consumption customizable.
Does this mean that the smartphone is exempted from the dystopia of “Videodrome” and the general distrust of media wielded by critical thinkers? Not according to one of the greatest contemporary philosophers of our time, American comedian and actor, Louis C.K. Especially if one analyzes social media which is the smartphones’ most popular use.
In a recent interview with Conan O’brien, the philosopher-comedian shared his thoughts on this most ubiquitous of devices. He fears that the mask of anonymity that the device offers encourages cruelty especially for kids. He noted that for his generation which is actually our generation as well, we grew up dealing with the ethical demand of face-to-face encounters in playgrounds and neighborhood streets, something that is elided in the virtual communities of social media.
There were many more gems from that interview with the great sage. But his pointed observations raise an interesting insight about both television and smartphones.
Why is that the contemporary human impulse of relating with the world seem to have been either to surrender to make-believe reality as was the case in television, or be so attached to the false sense of community provided by contemporary social media? Like electronic machines that needed to be plugged to a grid, there is that social need to be connected and validated by others in a constant process of self-erasure or escaping the truth of self.
Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on October 11, 2013.