Screening Desires

How much of our view of "the good life" comes from the films we watch?

Appears in Winter 2010 Issue: Faithful living
December 1st, 2010

"Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire—it tells you how to desire." —Slavoj Žižek

In his latest book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet is changing our brains. While most people are arguing about the content of the internet, Carr writes, very few are considering the effects that the medium, the carrier of the content, is having on its users. Carr goes on to explore how the internet seems to promote and habituate a short attention span.

With access to the glut of information available through the internet, we now think in spurts and searches, status updates and tweets. Carr uses some of the latest brain research to show how the biology of our brain is actually responding to the actions we take, and not only changing our worldview, but also changing how we think through our worldview. Carr does not conclude his book by condemning the internet as a technology that damages and manipulates, or as an evil that should be eradicated; rather he states simply that humans have the advantage of being reflective beings. We can study our own thought processes and we can then see that who we are as human beings is tied up in the tools and technologies that we create.

Like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman before him, Carr puts forth an epistemological argument. In the sixties, McLuhan's famous aphorism, the "medium is the message," helped move the conversation from content to the means in which content is communicated. Postman, in his analysis of television, argued that we are in danger of "amusing ourselves to death." We do this, says Postman, by exchanging our linguistic capacity for visual capacity. This exchange has changed our political discourse into sound bites rather than polemical dialogue. Postman concluded that if we continue on this trajectory, we are in danger of losing our democracy and sliding into a Huxleyian world where we will be fascinated by ever-changing, but meaningless, sounds and images.

It would be naïve to dismiss the insights of these scholars as alarmist. As Carr explains, the way media affects our thinking is particularly sensed by those who have experienced the transition from older media to newer forms. A little reflection on our use of media can go a long way toward understanding not only who we are as human beings but also who we are becoming.

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