[-empyre-] July on empyre: Screens/Interfaces?

Gere, Charlie c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk
Wed Jul 11 00:16:01 EST 2012

So here I am, sitting in front of my computer, knowing that I should write something about screens, and engage in this really high level discussion, but also thinking about how much I hate the things (screens I mean). I now find it almost impossible to watch more than about fifteen minutes of television. I don't mind the computer screen so much as I am able to write to it, but the ubiquity of screens to which we have to have a passive relationship I find disturbing. I have just driven back from London, past vast screens with moving content near the Westfield shopping centre, while my daughter watches a film on her new iPod Classic, on a screen the size of a large postage stamp, and also while I keep checking the screen of my iPhone for new messages. These screens seem to screen off the world as much as connect me to it.

So here are a few thoughts, harvested from my new book, Community without Community in Digital Culture, about to come out with Palgrave MacMillan



According to the Oxford English Dictionary 'digital' has a number of meanings, including '[O]f, pertaining to, using or being a digit', meaning one of the 'ten Arabic numerals from 0 to 9, especially when part of a number',  and also 'designating a computer which operates on date in the form of digits or similar discrete data... Designating or pertaining to a recording in which the original signal is represented by the spacing between pulses rather than by a wave, to make it less susceptible to degradation' (the word for data in the form of a wave being 'analog').  As well as referring to discrete data the dictionary also defines 'digital' as '[O]f or pertaining to a finger or fingers' and [R]esembling a finger or the hollow impression made by one', thus by extension the hand, grasping, touching and so on. It would seem, at first glance, that these two meanings are difficult to reconcile, if not actually opposed. On the one hand (!) the digital concerns the immaterial, the virtual, that which we might oppose to the body, and on the other it refers directly to embodiment and our corporeal engagement in the world. This is made more complex if you are reading this book onscreen, perhaps on some form of digital technology, a Kindle or an iPad, using a touch screen to pinch together or swipe through images, or other files. Such devices seem to reconcile the otherwise apparently divergent meanings of the word digital.

There is an interesting tension here inasmuch as the hand is often presented as a locus of resistance to technology, or at least to advanced technology, thus the frequent invocation of handicraft as a form of practice in opposition to mechanization and virtualization. But the divergence of meanings of the word 'digital' is perhaps less straightforward than it might at first appear. Our new electronic and digital technologies are also increasingly understood as the vehicles of new forms of relationality and community, often invoking tropes of touch. Thus even as our relationships are increasingly explicitly mediated by such technologies, we are encouraged to imagine that they keep us ever more 'in touch'. Here we might cite the famous, A T & T advertising slogan for their telephone network 'reach out and touch someone', or the capacity to 'poke' people on Facebook, or the images used to signify peer-to-peer networks, which often feature stylized human figures embracing, touching, in circles.

This connection between contemporary forms of information communication technology and touch is not new. Marshall McLuhan saw the computer age as a time when the sensus communis, the bringing together of the different senses under the aegis of touch, of Aristotle and Aquinas might once again come to be realized, as opposed to the ocularcentrism of modernity. He suggests that '[O]ur very word "grasp" or "apprehension" points to the process of getting at one thing through another, of handling and sensing many facets at a time through more than one sense at a time'. For McLuhan '"touch" is not skin but the interplay of the senses, and "keeping in touch" or "getting in touch" is a matter of a fruitful meeting of the senses, of sight translated into sound and sound into movement, and taste and smell'. He invokes the Aristotelian 'common sense', the 'power of translating one kind of experience of one sense into all the senses, and presenting the result continuously as a unified image to the mind', which he suggests was once regarded as 'the mark of our rationality' and, given that 'it is now possible to program ratios among the senses that approach the condition of consciousness' 'may in the computer age easily become so again'. In the chapter on television in his book Understanding Media, McLuhan makes a number of strong claims for the tactility and hapticity of television. The TV image requires each instant that we "close" the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive, sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses, rather than the isolated contact of skin and object'.

This is connected with a notion of community that is made possible through communications technologies. McLuhan describes 'the "simultaneous field" of electronic information structures' which 'today, reconstitutes the conditions and need for dialogue and participation, rather than specialism and private initiative in all levels of social experience'. Yet McLuhan also conceded that touch also involves separation and distance as much as contact. In a letter from 1969, to the philosopher P. F. Strawson, McLuhan remarks, in passing, that '[T]ouch is the space of the gap, not the connection'.

Charlie Gere
Professor of Media Theory and History
Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts
Lancaster University
c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk

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