From deckchairs to Google Glass

Czecho  (aka The Czech Republic) is a small, highly cultured, enterprising and design-conscious country and I generally like what I see (outside of the politics). It’s a way of life that’s mostly familiar, mine, and yet not. Some features of daily life are kinder than I know from London, others are exaggerations of trends here. Exaggerations are always useful pointers to what may not otherwise show up at home. Take the cinema we wandered into a couple of weeks ago. The first thing it made me realize, because the satisfaction wasn’t there, was that the rows of seats in empty auditoriums had always offered me a pleasure in anticipation. Be it cinema, playhouse, concert hall, lecture theatre, when I enter I’m looking forward to the combination of discipline and self-abandon entailed in sitting there and letting myself be confronted by something. So, just imagine the opposite experience that came our way in Prague.  Someone had the postmodern idea that filmgoers judge rows of seats to be offputting, and so every third perch or so, and above all irregularly, they had taken out a seat or two and substituted a few deckchairs, or a bean bag.

You could see what the idea was, somehow to make people feel more at home while watching a film (since that’s where most of us do our viewing now.) If your cinema seat has a bean bag in front you can put your feet up. Choose a deckchair and you can recline at any angle you want. The most spectacular seating option in Bio Oko, Prague 7, was an open-top yellow sports car, parked at an angle to the screen. Sit there and you might pretend you were watching a drive-in movie somewhere in the American mid-West, rather than Prague on a rainy Saturday.

The car began to worry me even more than the irregular seating, for it seemed to effect a curious transfer of the action away from what we were there to view together in public and towards providing parallel private experiences for every customer. The car brought a dramatic prop off the stage and into the auditorium. Potentially it upstaged the drama on screen and prompted another inside my or your head. The new arrangement of the cinema ceased to offer public entertainment and was offering what the customer was used to at home: living extendedly in his or her own private fantasy.

True, that’s only what’s always been going on when an audience watched a spectacle in public or listened to music for the last two and half millennia. We all bring our highly individuated consciousnesses to the stories and lessons we are confronted with. But when Aristotle thought about the effects of Greek tragedy he at least found a formula for the general effects of the occasion on those watching, such that they had some experience in common. What Aristotle meant is disputed, but one prominent and plausible interpretation is the idea that whatever excess of emotion we have inside us when we enter the tragic theatre, hatred, jealousy, pride, etc., when we leave the play will have quietened us down and left us more reasonable, more able to consider different ways of conducting our affairs, rather than being driven by an overweening passion. It’s only now with my experience of the deckchairs and the bean bags that I come to think the orderly rows of seats in the Greek theatre, which entertainment and teaching in the Western world took as a spatial model ever after, had its correlative in a sense of the value of civic order amid the private emotional chaos.

Civic order has to do not only with a willingness to submit to a certain regularity of behaviour in public which is more or less narrowing, compared with the liberty enjoyed behind closed doors. It endorses a sense that we can come together, as creatures amenable to reason. Reason shouldn’t be defined too narrowly. It’s more than logic. Here for instance it includes the willingness to share emotional experience collectively. It gets us out of our selves. Subtly it increases our trust in strangers, prompting the assumption that they understand the turmoil we all go through in private and that we have this struggle with order and objectivity in common and can make allowances for it in each other. As such reason, or the ability to get outside ourselves, massively enhances what culture means, as a refined way of co-existing. Surely when Shakespeare put on a play he didn’t imagine its contents only being funnelled into individual heads as a private experience. When he multiplied the theatrical metaphors within the plays he showed over and over how important a shared awareness of the power of spectacle was to bring greater clarity to a community.

Fifty years ago the French writer Guy Debord worried about the whole of society become a spectacle, so that an independent sense of reality vanished. This was the anxiety which amongst other things the age of television introduced. But today the worry has to be of a body politic so subjectivized, in the manner of its response to consumable experience, and on its travels through amenable spaces, that individuals can’t imagine what it would be like for experience to be communal and space public, constrained by reason, order and, embracing both of those impulses, objective.

I don’t want to put forward Aldous Huxley as a great writer, but he did have some good ideas about his times, which are still our own. In Brave New World (1932) he already imagined the cinema experience transmuted into ‘the feelies’, whereby you and I and a host of strangers would sit relishing whatever sense experiences the occasion would waft our way, and then leave, without there having been a common object of experience among us to criticize and debate. Orgasms for all, but without anything shared, one might say. No culture in that.

The deckchairs and the bean bags in a Prague cinema desperate to increase its revenue may seem mild in their implications for postmodern Western society compared with Huxley’s scifi moralizing of eighty years ago. But think of Google’s hyper-subjectivizing Glasses, that are about to come upon us. Industry defenders who say they simply make what can be done on a smart phone ‘less socially disruptive’ (Drew Olanoff, reviewing Glass for the Techcrunch website) dangerously miss the point. Even more do those who worry about those glasses taking pictures of their wearers and broadcasting them across the globe and thus infringing their users’ privacy miss the point. (After all, one doesn’t have to wear them.) The real danger is this. Just like phones, and now much more so, devices that steer our eyes away from immediate reality and on to virtual screens really would threaten the bond between society and the ongoing consciousness of individuals thus deceived into believing they are not part of it. For millennia it was no accident that reason, and truth, were linked with what could be seen with one’s own eyes. Give up the direction of consciousness outwards, on a truth-seeking mission, and you give up the quest for reason and truth.

As a visual indication of what threatens us now the Prague cinema deckchairs and beanbags seem to me spectacularly telling. And no, pace Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, defending Google Glass at a talk at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in April 2013, I’m not just someone old who can’t adapt or can’t see how society will adapt. I’m all too worried it will adapt. The purveyors of hyper-indivualized experience threaten to  destroy our capacity to recognize the necessity of any order other than our intimate own, and count on our sybaritic lethargy not to object.

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