The Screen City and the Absence of Choice

In this essay, Calvin Badger, a student at Indiana University, analyzes the extent to which individuals can express agency vis a vis public screens in Shanghai and Hong Kong, considering the ways in which those screens are bound up with relations of power in the city.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Student Voices section on Hong Kong, Shanghai, cities, screens, and spectacle. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

As the world of communicative media and technology expands and evolves, we can see urban landscapes expanding and evolving with it. Take Times Square for example. New York’s major commercial, entertainment, and tourism destination has always been infamous for its bright lights and abundance of strong visual advertising. But compare the contemporary location to a picture of it from fifty years ago and you’ll easily identify the ways in which it’s evolved. The hub’s lights have gotten better and brighter, shifting from illuminated billboards and neon signs to high definition screens and somewhat artistic light displays. Furthermore, the sheer amount of content present within the space has skyrocketed. Whereas signage once seemed to have breathing room in between them, screens and lights are now crammed up against each other in order fill every inch of space present on the faces of the surrounding buildings.  Having recently visited Times Square, I can say that standing in the middle of the bustling junction is undoubtedly overwhelming. The plethora of different channels constantly bombarding the passersby below with their own specific message can be nauseating or intimidating for people who aren’t constantly exposed to this severe level of light pollution.

But what about these urbanites who are regularly exposed to this kind of screen environment? What effect does walking through this environment every day have on a person and what does it say to them about the city they live in as well as the culture within that city? The screens and media present in screen cities (cities that place a high importance on the production and use of screens to broadcast and communicate messages) dominate the lives of the urban dwellers that live beneath them. These screens tell people how to feel, how to think, and how to behave. And whether they like it or not, the spectators down below have little choice but to listen (and look).

This constant abundance and strategic execution of screen content present within cities like New York, as well as Hong Kong and Shanghai, has a strong effect on the environments they exist within as well as the people who dwell within them. The plethora of different types of screens may give the spectator a sense of individualism in that they get to choose which screens to consume – that in the end, the spectator has the final say on where they focus their eyes. This is not actually the case. In the reality of existing in an urban environment, when it comes to the screens versus spectator, screens definitely hold more power. In a recent lecture by new-media artist and theorist Maurice Benayoun at the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media, Benayoun was adamant in his belief that we have no control over what sort of urban media we focus our attention because we don’t get any say as to what sort of message is broadcast to us as well as where and when it is broadcast to us.1Maurice Benayoun, “A Cautionary Tale of Urban Media Art” (public lecture, City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media, Hong Kong, March 12, 2018). Upon hearing this idea, I at first disagreed with Benayoun, believing that although we have no control over what sort of messages are broadcast to us, we still have a say in which screens and signs to give our attention to. I didn’t want to accept the fact that we are powerless as to what kind of content I accept into my mind. I wanted to believe that I am conscious enough of my surroundings to be able to resist letting these messages affect me. However, after further exploring the screen-dense areas of Hong Kong and Shanghai, I realized that Benayoun is right. The relationship between screen and spectator really is indeed a nonconsensual one. We have no real say in what reaches our subconscious as we allow the plethora of light-based messages to easily penetrate our minds. As long as the light from screens around us still make it to our bodies, we are handing over some bit of attention whether it be intentional or not. Humans may have created screens and the screen cities in which they exist, but the screens are the entities that really hold all the control.

An LED screen placed on the SOGO department store in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.  Photograph by Calvin Badger

Very often, the placement of urban screens traps us into consuming whatever message they wish to convey. Large scale screens like the one at the SOGO department store in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong capture our attention through sheer scale. Screens such as this are not only visible for several city blocks, but impossible to ignore. They dominate the environment they exist in, not only allowing their message to spread over large amounts of space, but to steal the space from other screens and stimuli within the area. It’s a seemingly impossible task to take a single picture that encapsulates all of the colossal SOGO screen. It’s even more difficult trying to take a picture in the general vicinity of the screen that isn’t being invaded by the blinding, headache-inducing light constantly being emitted from the screen. But it’s not just the offensively large screens that are the most effective. Sometimes smaller screens, used in diabolically creative ways can be even harder to ignore. Small screens such as the ones imbedded within the mirrors of the restrooms of the train station in Shenzhen have begun to burrow their way into ordinary public spaces in an attempt to capture even a few spare seconds of the public’s attention. The Shenzhen restroom screens are installed above every sink in the restroom which forces spectators to face a strange impasse: If you want to wash your hands, you’ll have to watch whatever is on the screen too.

An LED screen built into the mirror of the men’s restroom of the train station in Shenzhen, China. Photograph by Calvin Badger

This strategy of presentation is prevalent within many environments. Screens such as this are familiar to those who have flown on international flights that include personal screens as in-flight entertainment. These literally in your face screens give the illusion of choice by allowing the user to select what they’re used for, but the one choice that the user doesn’t have is whether or not to actually use the screen at all. Whether they like it or not, passengers on this flight are going to spend hours staring at a screen fifteen inches in front of them that is impossible to turn off. Anna McCarthy argues that “personal” screens such as these are used to make public screen consumption seem like a much more private and personal experience.2Anna McCarthy. “Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens,” Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 122. While on the surface this does seem like an individualized experience full of free choice, I feel that it’s actually quite the opposite of an individualized experience. If you step back and observe this viewing experience from a distance you’ll see that everyone in an area, whether it be plane cabin or public restroom, is being dominated by the same screen in the same way. You may start to draw connections between this high-altitude experience and Apple’s infamous “1984” commercial as you notice the rows and rows of individuals all hypnotized by messages being broadcast to them on a screen. The only difference is the replacement of one large scale “Big Brother” screen by an army of small scale “Little Brother” screens. The screens’ technicalities here may be different but the effect is the same: complete domination over the attention of the individual.

So, what exactly is the problem? Why does it matter if screens are littered all over urban

environments like in Hong Kong or Shanghai? What effect do these screens have? Nanna Verhoeff argues that the abundance and environmental prevalence of urban screens can result in disruptions of spatial permanence: “If architecture is both the process and product of the planning, design, and construction of the built environment, or urban space, then the concept of media architecture appears to have a conceptual problem. The problem is that there are no fixed material structures that result from such (media) architectural acts.”3Nannna Verhoeff, “Screens in the City,” in Screens: From Materiality to Spectatorship– A Historical and Theoretical Reassessment, eds. Dominique Chateau and Jose Moure (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 127. The strong use of screens in screen cities can have impressive transformative abilities. They can mark the difference between an area feeling artistic or commercial, tourism-focused or efficiency driven. Verhoeff discusses this transformative nature of urban screens as the dispositif. Dispositif can be defined as the shifting relationships among spectators, screens, and the spaces that surround them. While the identification and study of the specific dispositif of a setting can be useful in order for the city to change, it’s use and application can be problematic in that it doesn’t commit permanently to specific ideas or values, which can make it confusing for spectators to identify parts of a city. Furthermore, it allows screens to repurpose certain areas of the city, even if the repurposing doesn’t reflect the more grounded nature of the environment.

Combine the transformative nature of screens with their domination of human attention and their effect on society becomes clear. The overabundance of public screens takes away thought and creativity from the individual. Instead of letting one develop creative and deep beliefs, it plants shallow, inauthentic thoughts and ideas in the head of the individual through deception and repetition. In his essay on performing public space, Scott McQuire includes a quote from Richard Sennett that states, “With an emphasis on psychological authenticity, people become inartistic in daily life because they are unable to tap the fundamental creative strength of the actor, the ability to play with and invest feeling in external images of the self.”4quoted in Scott McQuire, “Performing Public Space,” The Media City: Media, Architecture, and Urban Space (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008), 130-158. McQuire took this idea a step further by saying that the public communication of thoughts and ideas by high status figures has caused the individual to become antisocial and uncreative. To constantly choose “detachment over engagement.”5Scott McQuire, “Transforming Media and Public Space,” in Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (Cambridge: Polity, 2016), 17-64.

As McQuire argues, screens have made it more daunting to develop personal ideologies or engage in social interactions different from those shown in public media. In screen rich cities, this argument is most applicable as actors, spokespeople, and well-known figures stare down from their massive screens and billboards placed above the heads of city dwellers. It’s hard not to see these figures as Big Brother, hypnotizing the masses with the ideas and products they are trying to sell. “Sell” in this sense not just being in the literal sense of exchanging a product for money, but in the sense of convincing the public to accept an idea or concept being broadcast to them. Screens achieve this by brainwashing the masses through a surplusage of media content that the consumer can’t avoid being exposed to and affected by.

Overexposure to public screens can have a powerful impact on urban-dwellers within screen cities. The screen content they consume can discourage certain ideas and stress others, and often this manipulation goes largely unnoticed. The clutter of screens in cities like Hong Kong or Shanghai may make it seem easy to tune out individual screens, but in reality we are affected by just about every screen in sight. And despite whether we realize this effect or not, there’s not much we can do to change it.


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