Thursday, September 11, 2014

New Media & Artistic Prophecy: when artists get the message before scientists

In this blog we talk about how different media tend to transform not only our environments but also our minds (i.e., how we process information).  Thus far we've looked at the transformative power of media as scientists.  Let us also observe as artists, because (in my opinion) it is often the artists who foresee what the scientists later verify.

So how have artists observed the transformative power of media on both our environments and minds?

Well, to start with the obvious, artists are keenly sensitive to the fact that new media tend to displace old media, although old media are not always completely replaced.  For example, TV, cinema, and social media have noticeably surpassed books, theater, and print media in popularity.  But the latter have not entirely disappeared—they just became more marginalized in certain cultural niches.  Yes, many individuals still read and write books, but far more people are watching television programs and browsing websites.

(Don’t believe me?   The latest data from Pew Research shows that the average American reads only about 5 books a year.  Meanwhile, Nielsen Media Research found that the average American adult now watches 5 hours of TV per day, not including screen time with laptops, iPads, etc.)

Artists also are aware that media constitute a huge part of our environment.  Not surprisingly, when new media come onto the scene, they tend to transform our environment.  Books stores disappear as Amazon takes over.  More newspapers die out as websites and blogs compete for our attention.  Analog films become relics of the past as digital movies now dominate the cinema.  Public theater gives way more and more to home theater and entertainment systems.

But less obvious is that when new media transform our environments, they also transform our minds, because new environments often require us to act and think differently.  Think of it this way: different types of information-processing technologies (or media) involve distinct kinds of information-processing tasks (or mental activities).  Scanning a webpage clearly involves a different kind of thought process than reading a book.  Scanning websites to mine data involves multitasking and short-term memory.  Reading books to learn new facts or narratives entails reflective thought and long-term memory.

As I’ve been writing about in previous posts (see the Screen Vs. Print series, Parts I, II, and III), many social scientists have studied these mutual transformation of our environments and minds that new media and technologies bring.  Cognitive scientists in particular have looked at how different media make us think, or process information, differently.  Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, for instance, has looked at neural plasticity to demonstrate why digital reading is a new kind of reading (really, it's a style of skimming or browsing), because it does not necessarily enact the same neural pathways in the brain that book reading does.  Online skimming is just not the same mental activity as deep reading comprehension.

The Annunciation, by Sandro Botticelli (image from Wikipedia)

Readers of this blog know that I greatly appreciate this scientific research.  You might say that looking at the implications of cognitive science for media ecology is a central theme of this blog!  However, as is often the case, artists usually foresee such environmental and mental transformations before scientists do.  

Now I could give tons of examples (and I'm sure you may think of many more), but take a painting by Gottfried Helnwein, one of my favorite contemporary painters.  In Helnwein’s painting, Annunciation, we have a technological twist on the miraculous story in the Book of Luke, where God sends the angel Gabriel down from Heaven to Earth.  Gabriel finds the Virgin Mary and announces that she will mother the Messiah.  The rest, they say, is history, as plenty of Renaissance art reminds us (one of my favorites being Sandro Botticelli's painting--see to the right).

Annunciation, Gottfried Helnwein (image from Helnwein's website)

In Helnwein’s painting (see to the left), we have an angel (Gabriel?) leaping out from the TV screen into the household, implicitly traversing the divide between the virtual environment of TV (God’s Heaven?) and the physical environment of the girl (Mary’s dwelling?).

In the Biblical story, God crossed the threshold from Heaven to Earth, sending his messenger to Mary so that she would give birth to the Messiah.  That angelic message would transform the Earth.  Likewise, in Helnwein’s painting, TV (the new God of our culture) sends an angelic television message from the electronic screen to the physical world.  Will the angelic television message also transform the world?

In fact, I believe that’s the implication: when the television angel (or television message—the word “angel” literally means “messenger”) reaches the girl, this ‘annunciation’ will give birth to a new transformation.  Presumably, it will transform both our environment (into a virtual environment) and our minds (into mesmerized vessels).

Helnwein may have been prophesying that TV (perhaps also later digital media like Internet, laptops, iPods, etc.) would become the new God or heavenly realm of our culture (or should we now say ‘cyberculture’).  The virtual environment is its new church.  Now whether you're religious or not, this artistic prophesy should compel you to ponder what kind of power your technology has over your psyche.

Do you think Helnwein’s prophecy became true?  Certainly, media critic Neil Postman thought so, and he found it outright disturbing, warning us that we are using mass media (especially TV) to amuse ourselves to death!

But of course (keeping with the theme here), before social scientist Neil Postman warned us in his scholarly work, literary artist Aldous Huxley warned us in his magnificent novel, Brave New World.



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