Excerpt from Jessica Helfand, "Sensory Montage." Eye, 6:25 (Summer 1997) 8-9.

In screen-based media of all kinds there continues to be a tremendous emphasis on interruptive activity. Clearly life often follows such a pattern, leading one to suspect that this tendency is itself rooted in the familiar pulse of daily behavior, complete with interruption, contradiction and fragmentation. Here is the digital doppelganger at work: the artistic self looks for ways to extend these ideals in visually compelling ways (blur the type!) while the analytical self looks for diagnostically quantifiable results (who's watching?). Ratings on TV are like hits on websites: they comment on consumption and traffic, report on the quantity rather than the quality--or more important still, the dramatic success--of the screen experience. Cultural critic Todd Gitlin explains it simply: 'The (television ratings) numbers only sample sets tuned in, not necessarily shows watched, let alone grasped, remembered, loved, learned from, deeply anticipated or mildly tolerated.

Television sends a falsely compelling signal to the public in general--and designers in particular--for several reasons. First, because it amputates the senses, editing out the sights and smells and ambient details of real experience to zero in on what can fit within the rectangle of the screen. Second, because it makes information seem more important by delivering it in fits and starts: consider the editing style of broadcast journalism, which provides the public with, quite literally, ?sound bytes?: shards of information that have become synonymous with the ways we access news. In his excellent book The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben discusses the simulation of experience on the screen during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, when fragmented snippets of brutal missile attacks were televised as a kind of protracted, you-are-there form of documentary journalism. It was one big serialized drama, and ratings soared as viewers reportedly went home at night to 'watch the war.' (McKibben pointedly observes the fundamental failure of such screen-based simulation, adding that reality junkies looking for a proper war fix might have been better advised to hire someone to toss a brick through their living room windows in the middle of the night.)


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