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Archeology of a Computer Screen


Contemporary human-computer interfaces appear to offer radical new possibilities for art and communication. Virtual reality (VR) allows us to travel through non-existent three-dimensional spaces. A computer monitor connected to a network becomes a window through which we can be present in a place thousands of miles away. Finally, with the help of a mouse or a video camera, a computer is transformed into an intelligent being capable of engaging us in a dialogue.

VR, interactivity and telepresence are made possible by the recent technology of a digital computer. However, they are made real by a much, much older technology - the screen. It is by looking at a screen - a flat, rectangular surface positioned at some distance from the eyes - that the user experiences the illusion of navigating through virtual spaces, of being physically present somewhere else or of being hailed by the computer itself. If computers have become a common presence in our culture only in the last decade, the screen, on the other hand, has been used to present visual information for centuries - from Renaissance painting to twentieth-century cinema.

Today, coupled with a computer, the screen is rapidly becoming the main means of accessing any kind of information, be it still images, moving images or text. We are already using it to read the daily newspaper, to watch movies, to communicate with coworkers, relatives and friends, and, most importantly, to work (the screens of airline agents, data entry clerks, secretaries, engineers, doctors, pilots, etc.; the screens of ATM machines, supermarket checkouts, automobile control panels, and, of course, the screens of computers.)

We may debate whether our society is a society of spectacle or of simulation, but, undoubtedly, it is the society of a screen. What are the different stages of the screen's history? What are the relationships between the physical space where the viewer is located, his/her body, and the screen space? What are the ways in which computer displays both continue and challenge the tradition of a screen?

Article  1995