We watch them on the bus. At work. At play. We have been invaded by screensThey rule our lives. All we need is a screen to have sex with and the circle will be complete
Charlie Brooker The Guardian, Monday 24 August 2009 Try not to scream aloud with fear and/or excitement, but video screens are coming to magazines. Next month, thousands of copies of US showbiz mag Entertainment Weekly will contain a slimline electronic display capable of showing 40 minutes of video, activated when you open the magazine. As an added bonus, if you dip it in the bath while reading it, you’ll instantly win a free 40-minute full-body electroconvulsive therapy session (although sadly, for legal reasons, I have to point out that absolutely isn’t true).
This tragic news is no surprise. Screens have got us surrounded. Last week I stood on a tube platform watching a Persil commercial being digitally projected in HD on to the opposite wall, to give me something to stare at while waiting for my delayed train. It showed gurgling kiddywinks in polar-white clothes gambolling in a field at the height of summer, tumbling and rolling and skipping and laughing, as if the sheer supernatural luminance of their outfits had somehow short-circuited their mushy little brains.
The contrast between the faces in the advert and the faces on the platform couldn’t have been more marked. In the advert, all smiles. On the platform, morose expressions laminated by a thin sheen of grime and sweat; hangdog mugs smeared with London. There’s no air-con on the underground, so on a hot day people quickly resemble clothed piglets trapped in a can, waiting for the air to run out. In these circumstances, the Persil ad was downright sarcastic; not a harmless video, but a magic window showing what life could be, if only you weren’t stuck in a stinking, clammy-walled pipe, glumly jostling for space with fellow victims.
The underground also has video adverts lining the escalators. Where once stood rows of little posters with the occasional blob of dried chewing gum stuck to the nose of a beaming model, now stand rows of plasma screens displaying animated versions of movie posters and slogans for chain stores, and no one knows where to stick their gum any more because the images slide around.
It’s impossible not to be slightly impressed, not to think, “Ooh, I’m in Minority Report,” even as you glide by for the 10,000th time. The screens seem to belong there more than the real people trundling past them. Ad-world looks so vivid and clean, we humans are grotty streaks in a toilet pan by comparison. They should ban us flesh-scum from using the escalators, and lovingly place glossy examples of technology on there instead: Macbooks, iPods, shiny white smoothie makers, Xbox 360s and so on; one brilliant white machine quietly perched atop each step, screens advertising Ice Age 3D mirrored in their gleaming minimalist surfaces as they scroll steadily upwards, ascending into the light. Hey, it’s their destiny. We can use the stairs.
At London’s Westfield shopping centre – picture the Duty Free section of a 22nd-century spaceport – a series of “information centres” vaguely resembling giant iPhones stand dotted around the echoing floorspace. If you want to know where to buy some jeans, simply tap the interactive touchscreen and it instantly returns 500 different store names with step-by-step directions on how to find them. And if you want to know where to buy a radio or some comics or maybe just something with a bit of character to it, simply tap it again and it’ll sit there ignoring you; judging you somehow, like a mutely brooding obelisk – until you can’t bear the chill any longer and run screaming from the complex, passing across 2,000 CCTV screens as you go.
If a Victorian gentleman arrived in present-day London, he’d think we’d been invaded by glowing rectangles. The average single Londoner’s day runs as follows: You wake up and watch a screen until it tells you it’s time to leave the house, at which point you step outside (appearing on a CCTV screen the moment you do so), catch a bus (with an LED screen on the outside and an LCD screen on the inside) to the tube station (giant screens outside; screens down the escalator; projected screens on the platform), to sit on a train and fiddle with your iPod (via the screen), arrive at the office (to stare at a screen all day), then head home to split your attention between the internet (the screen on your lap) and the TV (the screen in the corner) and your mobile (a handheld screen you hold conversations with).
All we city dwellers need is a screen to have sex with and the circle is complete. Panasonic is doubtless perfecting some hideous LCD orifice technology as we speak. Probably one that makes 3D adverts appear in your head at the point of orgasm. Coco Pops are so chocolatey they even turn the milk brown. Now pass me a tissue.
The absolute omnipresence of screens is still a recent occurrence – they’ve only become totally unavoidable in the last four years or so – but already I’m utterly acclimatised. When I venture into the moist green countryside, the lack of screens is stunning. I stare at wooden pub signs with dumb incomprehension. The King’s Head? Is that a film? Why isn’t he moving? Is it a film about a king who can’t move? When a cow saunters by without so much as a single plasma display embedded in its hide, I instinctively film it on my phone, so I can see it on a screen where it won’t freak me out. Then I email a recording to the folks back home, so they can look it up online and tell me what it is. Ooh: apparently it’s a type of animal. I get it now, now it’s on my screen.
Yes. Screens. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a screen pissing illuminated phosphor into a human face – for ever.