Posted on 24/11/2011


Rectangles, neatly arranged

Our obsession with screens and why we haven’t (yet) broken out of the frame.

A Briefing on Slow Technology covers ways in which people are switching off, unplugging and generally detoxifying their lives of wifi radiation, if only for a short holiday.

In the 80s there was the thought that computation might merge with the world around us, blending into our environment. It would make sense – why not have computers merged into the furniture into walls, desks, projected onto surfaces to avoid the spatial need for a screen? But it never happened. We’re more addicted to these “rectangles” than ever before.

We want to hold and, increasingly, touch the screens around it. This is not simply a way of interacting with digitized information; it gives us a feeling of control. Within the bounds of the screen are all the data we could need – we’ve captured it, we take it with us and now it responds to our touch.

Part power-trip, part method of consumption, these displays are the gateways to the virtual worlds we’ve created. It’s only natural for us to box this information into one place that we can consume it. As Matt Ward, Design Lecturer at Goldsmiths, points out, “we like the boundaries that objects give us.” Screens still delimit the “virtual” world keeping it exactly that: virtual.

But it’s getting to a stage where we’re hoarding screens and information. I’ve noticed “hyperscreening“, not only in myself but also at work and on the Tube (I’m defining hyperscreening as using more than two screens at once: watching Tv, texting, and browsing on your laptop, for example).

Slowly, information is beginning to flow between devices, and ultimately between different screens. Orbital content is one example of this, as are any (free) newspaper apps that package the same information in a different way to match your device. Instapaper and Readability are two early attempts at processing web-based information for use in other ways. Text based information can flow freely; the next step will be images and video.

rectangle optical illusion

What is to stop the divide between screens breaking down further? Why do we need a TV, laptop, tablet AND a mobile phone? (The answer is we don’t.) We need to stop hording information within different devices, because it’s limiting how our use of technology and of information.

The first step is to allow videos, pictures and articles to flow freely. As soon as we can change devices as easily as we change our clothing, we can begin exploring more exciting things. We can explore projection, embedded computers, “smart” environments and build feedback into whatever aspect of our lives we want to know more about. Football boots that track a player’s moves, passes and fitness are just the first of many steps that will help meld data with the physical realm. In a world no longer restricted by rectangles, finally merge the “real” with the “virtual”.