All the World’s a Screen: All the world is not, even today, all a screen

When I chose “All the World’s a Screen” as a title two years ago for this column, I in no way expected that the play on Shakespeare’s famous metaphor would be a statement of fact. In 2020, all the world is a screen — that is, we see all the world through screens, and this has consequences on how we think about it. Call it ironic, but this, my final column for the Daily Trojan, is about how all the world is assuredly not a screen. Thankfully.

In the few years I’ve been writing this column, I see personal growth reflected in the interests I’ve expressed here. At first, I was focused solely on discussing popular films and Oscar picks. Then I began writing about individual films, current directors, the rise of streaming and eventually how our viewing habits are being shaped by the mediums we use to watch films. Now, my column’s title has taken on a new meaning — a “screen” I take more literally now. How is the world shaped by screens? I have to admit that this interest is premature, though. Forced to slow down by the pandemic, I stopped going to the movies and had more time to read about them. I read a smattering of film theory and cultural criticism, and eventually I met media critic Neil Postman. 

Those who have read Postman will probably roll their eyes at this point, “I know where this is going.” You might be expecting me to get all pessimistic at this point, for Postman was criticized for being far too critical of technology. His most popular argument was that a technological medium is never neutral, it has a certain way of viewing the world which it teaches us the more we use it. Ending his career at the cusp of the Internet age, television was his primary target. “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” his most famous work, discussed how television has turned politics, religion and education into mere forms of entertainment. 

Postman is praised as a prophet but derided by many as a backward-thinking Luddite (one who hates and destroys all forms of technology). But he showed up at the right time for me. Precisely in the year when technology is most necessary, I found it refreshing to read someone with such a different attitude toward media. Fascinating as his arguments are, however, I’m slowly coming to terms with how potentially irrelevant those ideas are in a society brimming with technology and developing new devices and programs at such an alarming (frightening?) rate. But, I retain some hope. I think if any generation will be open to having a critical eye to media it will be mine: we who have a brief memory of a world without pervasive media, but have logged on for something like 17 years straight, may be the most open to disconnect — but not literally, of course. 

It would be very naive to say we need to stop seeing all the world through a screen by simply quitting social media and going all “Into the Wild.” I could argue that most of us don’t actually need to spend a lot of time online, but that would be equally futile. I’d rather argue the obvious first: The world is more than what we see on our screens. More importantly, people are more than what we see on our screens. More than simply looking up from our phones, I think we have to think differently while we’re using them. To understand that what we’re seeing isn’t everything; that “what’s happening” is more than a headline or trend; that our neighbors, friends and fellow citizens are more complex than a post or tweet. 

If we train ourselves to think this way whenever we’re online, we will resist the subtle ways technology can change our attitudes toward culture. 

This column began as film criticism, hoping to model a kind of unpretentious and fun way of reading movies; now I conclude by expanding that critical attitude to every part of life. I don’t think this is much of a jump anyway, for movies purport to distill life on the screen. A successful or “realistic” movie is one that reflects what the audience knows to be true about the world. So, in writing that we should hold on to what is true and complex (which is not necessarily everything we see through media), I believe we can hold our films accountable. 

Isa Uggetti is a senior writing about film. His column, “All the World’s a Screen,” ran every other Monday.