Excerpt from Jessica Helfand, "Teasing the Nerves: The New Art of Technological Persuasion." Eye, 6:26 (forthcoming, Summer 1998) 8-9.

What separates contemporary cultural attitides from those of a century ago is the tremendous premium we place on leisure. Today, we crave maximum choice with minimum effort, growing more accustomed to receiving than transmitting, better at consuming than creating, finding ourselves increasingly reliant upon the multiple screens that collectively define and confine our daily data feed--even if the information we receive is misleading or slanted or false. The more we grow accustomed--indeed, addicted--to the screens around us, the more we imprison our minds and restrict our capcity to exercise thoughtful, independent judgment.

In this pessimistic, though perhaps equally realistic portrayal of contemporary spectatorship, the precipice between believability and brainwashing grows narrower by the second. Our critical faculties compromised--or at the very least significantly diminished--we leave ourselves prone to a degree of psychic suggestion unprecedented in this century. Indeed, today's offerings in electronic media, long considered both a product--and a reflection--of the very pragmatism that underscores our post-industrial culture, now seek to do more than merely service the demands of an impatient public. Recent efforts in television programming, game design and even movie deals are going one step further: in an effort to secure and sustain audience loyalty, the goal now is to engage the viewer by piercing the psychological veil separating personal and public, author and audience, time and space, me and you.

Sound like a harsh assessment of contemporary media? Probably. But what appears increasingly true is the striking degree to which information, education and entertainment each employ a closely intertwined combination of design, technology and psychology to engage audiences in new and increasingly invasive ways. Beyond speed and software and special effects lie a host of sophisticated psychological methods that strive, in countless ways, to reach audiences with even more mesmerizing pull. Such methods--some highly deliberate and scientific, others more experimental and unpredictable--are proving to be increasingly seductive to viewers of all media.

And in some cases, they are proving to be more destructive as well.


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