Screens have been with us for centuries now: paintings are screens and so are windows. Yet, the very nature of screens has undergone a revolutionary transformation in the last decade or so. All the screens that preceded the PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistant) and the smartphone’s were inclusive of reality, they were AND screens: when you watched them you could not avoid (“screen out”) data emanating from your physical environment. “Screen-AND-reality” was the prevalent modus operandi.
Consider the cinema, the television, and the personal computer (PC): even when entangled in the flow of information provided by these machines, you were still fully exposed to and largely aware of your surroundings. The screens of the past were one step removed: there was always a considerable physical distance between user and device and the field of vision extended to encompass copious peripheral input.
Now consider the iPhone or the digital camera: their screens, though tiny, monopolize the field of vision and exclude the world by design. The physical distance between retina and screen has shrunk to the point of vanishing. 3-D television with its specialty eyeglasses and total immersion is merely the culmination of this trend: the utter removal of reality from the viewer’s experience. Modern screens are, therefore, OR screens: you either watch the screen OR observe reality. You cannot do both.
2. Perception and Representation in Analog and Digital Cameras
The digital camera profoundly affects the way we perceive and represent the world around us on “film”.
To start with, the user of the analog camera used to watch the world, however indirectly. All that stood between him and reality was the viewer of his apparatus. He recorded what he saw “out there”.
In contrast, the user of the digital camera watches a representation of the world on a screen. He records what he sees on the screen of his gadget. He rarely glances up to gaze directly at his subject matter.
The digital camera is more forgiving and permissive. Errors can be instantly deleted. The whole experience is characterized by an urgency and immediacy that is absent from the analog equivalent. The digital camera allows its user to experiment with cost-free and, therefore, risk-free alternatives. It transforms the whole procedure of shooting pictures into a spontaneous, even irreverent, experience. With the digital apparatus visuals are a public good.
Environmental facts that used to serve as external constraints on use of the analog camera – the quantity and angle of light, for instance – are now compensated for by special settings in its digital successor. The typical gadget provides for preset “templates” that capture the moment in an optimal manner, removing obstacles and limitations posed by the photographer’s physical surroundings.
The digital photo is never a finished product. It can be downloaded onto a storage device (a computer’s hard disk, the Internet) and there edited with software applications. Reality is thus rendered tentative and negotiable, a declaration of intent rather than a final statement.