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We Are Living in a Screenworld -- Reality Isn't in the Real World Anymore

Has our new definition of "life experience" rendered tangible interactions irrelevant?

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At arm's reach are three: the trio of computers accessible from this chair (often I work on two computers at once). Another screen glares across the room—the television. My cell phone, also at arm's reach, has a screen, even though I bought the simplest device possible: it cost 10 bucks, but it can take and transmit photos and movies, and features menus I don't bother to understand.

Now you see screens at checkout counters and laundromats, in restaurants and waiting rooms, and on the dashboards of cars and in their back seats. Millions of regular folks preen for screens on YouTube and Facebook, marketing their image like politicians or starlets. What with Blackberrys, iPhones, and a 10-buck cell, few Americans go anywhere anymore without a screen that connects to every other screen in some way or other, linking to any event or broadcast or data source anywhere, including satellite photos of every address you know, and most you don't.

These screens disconnect us, too. I work where I live, so, theoretically, I need never leave my apartment: I can order shoes, pet food, people food, parts for my car, and lingerie for my girlfriend right here on this screen, and anything purchasable can be delivered right to my door. Now that I think of it, it seems like half the people I know met their present significant others via the screen, and they aren't kids: they're middle-aged and aging.The power of these interconnected screens has grown enough that a virtually unknown woman can step before the media on a Friday and by the following Wednesday be a superstar, nominated for the vice presidency of the United States. A man touted not so long ago as a promising candidate for president uses the obscure racial slur macaca, and it takes just one person with a cell phone to make an audiovisual recording of the event. Presto! Within hours, the whole world knows, and the viability of a presidential hopeful evaporates into cyberspace.

In 1949, George Orwell published 1984, a vision of the worst possible society, in which screens were everywhere, inescapable. History has turned out to be not nearly so gloomy but far more surreal. If in 1980, say, after directing Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg had made a sci-fi adventure-comedy called Screenworld, well, he might have envisioned something very like our world, which, in 1980, would have seemed dizzying, funny, ridiculous, scary, technologically promiscuous, 24/7 exhausting, and appallingly lacking in privacy (privacy as a fact and as a value). Above all, in 1980, Screenworld would have seemed impossible, or, at the least, an uncertain, unmanageable future that lay thankfully in some alternate universe, far, far away.

Yet today, here we are, you and me, often engaging the world more through screens than face-to-face. Without planning to, and without especially wanting to, willy-nilly, we've become citizens of Screenworld.

A Collective Delusion of Reality

Something enormous has happened: the scale on which our society judges a human event has changed—which, in itself, is a human event of the first magnitude, and is, to my knowledge, something psychotherapy has barely begun to gauge.

In Screenworld, images of reality supersede reality itself, editing it, transforming it, playing with it in any fashion, until the source of the image ceases to matter while the image itself becomes all that matters. It began a century ago, with motion pictures, when one had to seek out the screen but couldn't control it. Sixty years ago, television brought the screen into our homes. However great their influence, one left the TV and the movie theater to go out into the world. Now, cyber-powered Screenworld is ever-present, making reality seem infinitely malleable, and all of us may add our own twists at a whim. In Screenworld, the world has become a place in which, as a band called Living Color put it, "everything is possible, but nothing is real."