[-empyre-] screens

Ian Bogost ian.bogost at lcc.gatech.edu
Sun Jul 8 01:41:44 EST 2012

On Jul 7, 2012, at 11:20 AM, Simon Biggs wrote:

> By the same logic a cinema screen is a piece of cloth, a TV screen a piece of blank glass. 

But a cinema screen IS a piece of cloth! A TV screen is a piece of blank glass! That's not all they are, but it's not all they aren't either. The way the TV reflects light in a room while switched off—this is a function of that medium as well.

> When we speak of cinema screens we include the full apparatus of the screen - the camera, the projector, etc. In respect of TV, the camera, the broadcast signal or other video source... all of which these days involve computers. 

Right, perhaps is precisely what I'm objecting to. The tendency to take the screen for the entire apparatus is a convenient metonymy, a nice shorthand in conversation, but it shouldn't (any longer) be a sufficient method to talk about the specifics of different technologies of representation. I'm aware that there are long traditions of "screen studies" and the like, but I think media studies ought to reconsider some of these moves. 

When Nick Montfort and I started the platform studies series, that was one of our goals: to invite focused analyses of specific platforms (computer platforms, in our case), and the relationship between the unique, and often very weird specifics of those platforms, and their influence on creativity and culture. This approach allowed Nick and I to show how the scanline-by-scanline CRT rendering technique of the Atari VCS had an unseen influence on the future of game design, and it allowed Jimmy Maher to show how the Amiga's ability to show multiple resolutions simultaneously made certain kinds of computational video compositing techniques possible.

> I think I am justified to refer to a HUD as a screen and to assert that there is an important difference of ilk between a passive screen (to be viewed, such as cinema or TV) and an active screen (such as a tablet screen or eye-tracker system, that mediates action) and that this difference of kind is of greater significance than the difference between specific kinds of passive screen media.

I don't have any problem referring to a HUD as a "screen" so long as we're moving in the direction of clarifying something about the HUD (and which HUD, right?), rather than melting all screens down into some Deleuzean screen-flow-machine that tells us nothing in particular about anything in particular. A counterpoint to that approach can be found in your previous discussion of the Kinect, which relied on very specific observations about that apparatus, how it "sees", and how it can be understood, in a certain sense, to turn a room into a screen for itself.  

As for passive/active, of course I see what you're saying and it makes sense, on the surface of things. But there are all sorts of questions. The screen of a tablet is active or responsive because it is conductive or capacitive. Multi-touch devices aren't really multi-touch screens, but screens coupled to computational systems of various kinds. Some use rear computer vision. Devices like iPads and iPhones and such use integrated circuits that process sensor information, and which reveal that data to sets of software libraries. Yet, it's also true that the iPad in particular seems to be "just a screen," disembodied. These are the paradoxes that I hope media studies will consider in detail.  

But I brought McLuhan up precisely because he considered TV to be active, not passive. The reasons are material, in part: the fuzzy, incompleteness of an interlaced television picture of the 1960s. Such is not the case today with the thing we call "television," which is now arguably just as hot as cinema—save for the fact that we now tend to extend TV viewing with other devices entirely.

All of which is just to say: it's complicated! Let's not be satisfied with a two- or three-term account of screens.

> I agree with you that different media do have different affects.

But not just affects, right? Also concrete, material histories and constructions. In this respect, despite my love for McLuhan, I must admit that Kittler and the German media studies tradition have the upper hand in deeply integrating the technical history and material construction of media into their cultural analyses.


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