The Power Of The Screen : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Commentator Alva Noë reflects on the draw of technology in society, culture and today's homes.
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The Power Of The Screen

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The tablet has its allure.
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In Kammer Kammer, a choreographic work of William Forsythe and his dancers in the Forsythe Company, some performers wear or carry cameras that send a live feed from the stage to monitors placed in view of the audience around the hall.

The audience has the remarkable experience of being confronted with a decision: Watch the performers moving live before them or let one's gaze drift to the video images of that very action. I remember being struck by the almost irresistible pull of the television screens. However animated, however high-voltage and virtuosic the live action of the dancers was, it was almost as if the eye, or as if I, craved the safety, or the comfort, or the simplicity of the picture. Whatever else this great work of choreography achieves — and I would be hard pressed to say that anything like what I am mentioning is its main concern — it gives the audience a heady and somehow enlightening opportunity to catch oneself in the act of having one's attention captured by flat technologies even in the face of such splendid bodily action.

Why should this be? The piece itself doesn't offer an answer, at least not so far as I can recall — it's been some years since I had the opportunity to see the work performed by the Forsythe Company in Amsterdam — but it definitely informs you, when you sit there, that your attention is in play, is pulled into play, and is, in fact, choreographed in ways not all that different from the action unfolding on the stage.

Kammer Kammer, and the problem of the curious attention-grabbing power of the mere moving image in the face of its original, has been on my mind lately. The Forsythe Company is, in the coming weeks, likely to perform this work for the last time — at least for the last time under the direction of William Forsythe, who has stepped down from the position of director of the company he founded 10 years ago. I'm sad I won't get to be there.

So, this is perhaps one reason why the whole question of the distinctive allure, and definite pleasure, not only of monitors but of the whole panoply of new screen-oriented technologies that are so present in our lives now, has been on my mind lately.

I broached the topic at a recent private gathering of scholars interested in the Internet that took place recently at the headquarters of a big Silicon Valley tech company. One thing I learned was that it's difficult to describe the phenomenon, or to pose the question, just right. What explains the easy pleasure we take in whiling away minutes and ours aimlessly cruising the web on our smart phones and computers? What is it about tablets that enables them to afford such effortless engagement, such absorption? And is there anything new about this at all? Is it different, finally, from what now seems old-fashioned, namely the voracious appetite we once all knew and that maybe some of us still know for newspapers, books, magazines, board games, or outdoor activity?

I was not satisfied with my ability to figure out quite the right way to put the question, but I was struck that many of the scholars there were inclined to agree that I was getting, however inadequately, at something. We can call it the power of the screen.

Actually, there is another reason this has been so much on my mind. I am a parent, and like most of the parents of tweens and teens that I know, I live in a household that is destabilized by the authoritative presence of attention-absorbing, unrelenting, screen-centered devices. How do we use them? Why do we use them so much? How can you turn them off? Can you turn them off? You can run out of juice, of course. Or the wifi can go on the fritz. But this achieves nothing so much as the full-mobilization of all our forces to solve those problems as fast as possible so we can plug in again.

I say "destabilizing," but I'm not sure it is all bad. When I think of all the trouble a teenager could get into, it's kind of reassuring to know that, given the choice, I know exactly where he is (in front of one of our screens). As one of my colleagues at the seminar noted, many people keep their cats indoors to keep them safe. Why not accept the fact that these days we raise our kids by, well, by plugging them in? (This is, maybe, the opposite of the free-range parenting Barbara J. King discusses in 13.7 today.)

I am sorry I won't make it to Frankfurt to see the final production of Kammer Kammer. But I'll look online. Maybe someone will post a video.


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe