Summer 1998

You are under our control

Design, technology and psychology conspire to find new ways of teasing and fraying the passive viewer’s nerves

Design, technology and psychology conspire to find new ways of teasing and fraying the passive viewer’s nerves

Audiences love a good cry. Better yet, a really juicy disaster. This combined lure of misery and mayhem has proven, of late, to sustain television ratings, increase box office receipts and promote Internet usage better than the most imaginative fictions could ever hope to do. From the sordid dramas (divorce, paparazzi) that preceded the death of the People’s Princess last summer to the alleged sexual dalliances (dishonesty, interns) that led America’s President to jeopardise his job this spring, the world is awash in stories that feed our apparently endless thirst for tragedy, scandal and confession – the police blotter writ large. In an age in which information and entertainment are so easily expedited to the average viewer, it comes as little surprise that said viewer will, in most cases, turn to the screen first.

And why? Simply stated, it is a familiar reflex: push a button and tune into something. Anything. And quite often, nothing – but with personalised newscasts, push technology and satellite feeds, the up-to-the-minute capacities boasted by what we broadly characterise as ‘electronic’ media give us the illusion that we are, at the very least, in the know. Whether we are bookmarking a URL or tuning into CNN – or even watching a film with mesmerising special effects – such is our apparent trust in the screen as a reliable source of information delivery that we appear willing to see, hear, believe and feel just about anything.

But can we actually be made to feel anything, merely by staring at a screen?

Actually, it is not a screen that we depend upon but multiple screens, and it is the simultaneous availability of multiple types of media that collectively shape, mediate and in many cases, distort our perceptions – visual, aural, emotional, intellectual, even physical – in a kind of senseless yet seamless swirl of televised, projected and beamed messages. And increasingly, it seems, such intrusive (if not entirely manipulative) tactics inform a substantial amount of what we are exposed to, from all sides, on a daily basis.

Behind the veil
Oddly, in spite of the sheer number of ‘interactive’ media options available to us at any given moment, ours remains a passive generation. What separates contemporary cultural attitudes from those of a century ago is precisely this: 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, whether in the form of television, computer, film or a combination thereof, the more we imprison our minds and restrict our capacity 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.

From engagement to invasion
Sound like a harsh assessment of contemporary media? Probably. But what appears to be increasing is the striking degree to which information, education and entertainment each employ closely intertwined combinations 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 mesmerising 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.

Flash Attacks
Consider the case, early last winter, of the Japanese TV cartoon show that was linked to reports of illness among as many as 12,000 people – most of them children. The program combined two supersonic animation techniques: alternatively flashing lights (to cause a sense of tension –what the Japanese call ‘paka-paka’) and a single, strong beam of red light (referred to in the press as ‘flash’). These so-called ‘flash attacks’ led to a virtual eruption of spontaneous seizures, particularly among very young viewers who were rushed by the thousands to local emergency rooms. It soon became clear that those afflicted had been watching the TV show in question, leading certain medical researchers to characterise the condition as a form of ‘optically stimulated epilepsy.’ Observed one: ‘This may be the first case of mass suffering from photo stimulation.’ Within days, Japanese broadcasters agreed to draw up voluntary guidelines for programs to help shield children from such attacks, but the damage had been done.

The idea that watching television, long considered a passive and essentially innocent activity, could result in such a calamitous medical emergency is horrifying. Moreover, that animation techniques themselves – edited to maximum dramatic and visual effect – could be transmitted at such accelerated frequencies so as to cause literal convulsions in the viewer, raises the notion of television as a mind-numbing activity to both new and considerably worrisome levels. But mostly it is just scary: scary to think of those small and vulnerable children, perched in front of those seemingly harmless screens, watching a cartoon one minute and struggling to regain consciousness the next. Scary that technology can transport us so far, and so fast. Scary to think of the viewer as victim. But television is not the only culprit here – and such psychological manipulation is not always accidental. At Microsoft, for example, game developers eager to maximise Internet participation are researching ways of mimicking deeply personal, human responses to play: they describe it as ‘teasing the nerves.’ Microsoft’s Alexey Pajtinov (who invented the best-selling computer game, Tetris) describes a goal of creating a game with ‘emotional rhythm’ that ‘transports a player across a psychic border ... alternating a sense of achievement and loss, pleasure and disappointment.’

Such efforts may seem irrelevant, indulgent, or even immaterial... then again, the billion computer and video game market is anything but immaterial. Analysts estimate that its future lies predominantly online, and predict that by the year 2001 the number of online game players will reach as many as 18.4 million people worldwide. By all indications, the shoot-em-up action games that dominated the video market a decade ago appear to be on the wane, giving way to games of increased intellectual skill, spatial subtlety and narrative complexity. Using the Internet as an international playing field, these new games find themselves in an excellent position to transport themselves across multiple borders: recreational, geographic, and yes – perhaps even psychic.

It is worth noting, too, that such goals are not reserved for game design alone: over in software development, Microsoft’s suite of integrated office products – including Windows, Office and BackOffice – is currently being marketed in an advertising campaign under the rubric ‘Digital Nervous System,’ followed by the ominous tailgate: ‘It’s how information becomes intelligence.’

Outwitting the intellect
In the way ‘smart’ used to suggest intuitive ability, (think ‘smart’ machines), the notion of ‘intelligence’ as a simulated behaviour suggests the opportunity to alter the mind. But does it offer license to alter the facts as well? Suddenly, it seems, intellectual capabilities are being seen as something malleable – commodities to be packaged and sold, manipulated and even bypassed entirely in this all-out effort to zap the audience.

Like a giant, panoramic stun gun, the opportunities for encouraging viewers to suspend judgment in favour of an immediate emotional response are perhaps most amplified on the big screen. The idea, for example, that 1500 people losing their lives in the frigid temperatures of the North Atlantic should immediately bring to mind a love triangle, raises questions about what today’s audiences are looking for. Or, perhaps more importantly, what they are willing to forget.

Certainly the opportunity to dramatise the greatest disaster of the twentieth century is itself an enormous temptation for anyone besieged by nostalgia ... and banking on a crowd-pleaser. Add to this the chance to recreate the aristocratic splendours of 1912 (think colourful costumes and servants) as well as the grim realities of those less fortunate (think monochromatic everything and steerage class) plus the underwater footage and The Big Crash itself and Titanic was a blockbuster movie waiting to happen. Despite cost overruns and extensive delays, the film opened last December to overwhelming praise: as of this writing, it is the third highest-grossing movie in history. Director James Cameron received the most prestigious award nominations, the highest commendations, eleven Oscars and the most gushing reviews in the popular and highbrow press. ‘At the close of the century,’ wrote one prominent New York film critic, ‘Cameron is pushing at cinema much as D.W. Griffith did at the start, raising the stakes of the spectacular, outwitting the intellect, and heading straight for the guts.’

Clearly, the desire to reach people emotionally is, in and of itself, a perfectly respectable goal. (It is the idea that emotional resonance exists at the expense of intellectual truth that is so troubling.) Underscoring this fundamental desire, too, lies the initial goal of determining what defines an audience: such demographic inquiry has long been the domain of market researchers, their data fuelled by focus group findings, and fed, (particularly in the United States) by an almost evangelical devotion to public opinion polls. Can the power of personalised technology combine with the reach of networked media to ease the spirit and stroke the soul? No doubt the engineers at Microsoft are working on this right now. Progress notwithstanding, there must be better ways to make an audience cry.

First published in Eye no. 28 vol. 7 1998

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