You, Me, and the Screen Between: An Elegy

Today’s civic breakdowns are rooted in a pandemic of screen-addiction that reaches back to a misunderstood chapter of American history 65 years ago. This is why my new novel Q&A is set in that time.

Listen to this essay on Cunningham’s podcast In the Atelier:

1.

We thought it was a window. We stared at it, the screen, believing we looked through it to something larger.

Early on, the images arrived as light projections: reels of film enlarged on a wall. Later, they were signals transmitted via airwaves to electron beams and cathode ray tubes. Still later, we turned to digital transmission and LED display.

The screen diverted our attention. We found it soothing at day’s end. It also exacerbated our anxieties constantly. We came to accept our new and queasy agitation.

From the newsreel evolved the nightly news, evolved hourly updates, evolved minute-to-minute tweets. We tried and failed to absorb the never-ending flood of images.

We were told the screen gave us the wide world in our living rooms, and we watched as world events swelled to an exponential scale and number, while the screen, our means of delivery, shrank to pocket-size. Soon the screen was giving us, with shocking clarity, an instantaneousness seeming to verge on something sublime.

The screen received our devotion, a fixed attention we’d formerly reserved for religious icons, or for our work as artists, journalists, educators, naturalists, philosophers. It provided an immediate access to others purported to defy all distance, even as it steadily reduced the time we spent face to face and in conscious proximity to one another.

It gave us each an “@”of our own. It gave us the shortest route, the time of the next train or bus, the way with the least amount of walking. It gave us the powers to reserve and to book, gave us social, gave us streaming, gave us interactive.

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Soon the screen was giving us, with shocking clarity, an instantaneousness seeming to verge on something sublime.

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As our late Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin observed of technology generally, the screen quickly multiplied our needs for unnecessary things and increased our involuntary commitments. It seemed to demand that we each constantly remind the world of our existence, our likes and dislikes, our delight and outrage.

The screen and its delivery devices gave us the notion of the “upgrade” and its corollary: planned obsolescence on an unthinkable scale. It gave us our coordinates from outer space, while numbing us to the immediacy of the geo-physical moment that enfolded us. All the while, our landfills accumulated silicon and mercury and mountains of plastic, glass, and copper waste.

Enthralled by the screen, we came to question the necessity of privacy. We learned to let go of old values, and to require speed, convenience, portability, connectivity. We learned to desire our stats and the stats of others. We learned to accept the special way the screen reduced to equivalencies all things seen within its frame: NASCAR, cop shows, TV journalism, late night comedians, cat GIFS, and the office of the presidency. Gone was the idea of everything in its proper place.

More screen, less “meatspace” and IRL. More optimization, less serendipity. More jump-cuts, less syntax. More data, data, data. More info, info, info.

We embraced the self-promoting capacities and tools the screen promised us. We learned to expect an audience. We honed the skill of performing our lives in lieu of merely living them.

The screen created the “sharing economy,” the “attention economy,” the “gig economy,” and a special iteration of the “creative class” — a brave new world in which it seemed that everybody’s individual passion had, at long last, converged with their livelihood, while in fact hardly anybody was making a living anymore.

The screen provided us 2,000 songs in the palm of the hand but dealt a fatal blow to the solvency of musicians. The screen provided the texts of 3,500 books at a weight of 9.5 ounces but contributed to the dissolution of publishers and booksellers and weakened the infrastructure that supported and sustained authors. The screen empowered and accelerated the mobilization of righteous movements: the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street and the Million Women March and Black Lives Matter, but it exposed us as never before to the rapacity of advertisers, to the invasive scrutiny of our own government agencies under the PATRIOT Act, to a massive blurring of private and professional life, to the political meddling of extra-national bots, to the daily specter of harassment by anonymous trolls, and to amplified terrorist threats both international and domestic.

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We embraced the self-promoting capacities and tools the screen promised us. We learned to expect an audience. We honed the skill of performing our lives in lieu of merely living them.

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Our fixation on the screen forged new neural networks and sharpened into biochemical habit our reluctance toward the printed page, our acceptance of incoherent audio-visual stimuli, and our need to fictionalize our lives not only for others but publicly for ourselves.

The screen led us away from the book toward the illumined mirage, away from ideas toward memes.

The screen gave us new meanings: desktop, window, home, field, friend.

It redefined everything.

2.

Now, here in the madding wake of the 45th American presidency, let us remember that once upon a time we impeached the screen. TV itself was made to stand trial before the U.S. Congress. The memories are hazy, the details obscured as if behind a veil of snowy static, but this happened.

America, a land of electronic images, big pharma, high-tech distraction, and endless advertising, seemed to be teetering on the cusp of an awful new reality. False impressions were the stock in trade, big onscreen metrics mattered most, and in the midst of this a white man played a version of himself on primetime. He was a celebrity and a winner, and he ruled the ratings.

The object of this man’s game was to claim knowledge he didn’t possess, and to provide an image viewers would anxiously fixate upon and maybe even idolize.

He was a man more closely watched than any person of any time before him. He became TV and TV became him.

The year was 1956. The program was a quiz show called Twenty-One. The man was Charles Van Doren, a thirty-year-old intellectual and aspiring novelist who taught literature at Columbia. His father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, his uncle a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, and his mother an erstwhile editor of The Nation magazine.

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A white man played a version of himself on primetime. He was a celebrity and a winner, and he ruled the ratings.

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Between November 1956 and March 1957 Charlie Van Doren scored repeated victories on Twenty-One, becoming this country’s hottest star, and racking up cash winnings of $129,000 — more than a cool million today. Eventually, though, the illusion broke and a spellbound nation awakened to a rude truth, when Charlie and his fellow quiz show contestants were outed as fakes: they’d all been supplied answers ahead of time, enabling Twenty-One’s producers to maximize drama and pump up audience numbers. This scheme had sent sales of sponsors’ products — pharmaceuticals mostly — through the roof.

Americans watched, unblinking, as Charlie’s screen-image and Charlie’s real self diverged horribly. Into the chasm between icon and individual flooded a repulsive reality. Charlie was a lie, and for months upon months the screen had beamed the lie right into hearth and home.

Would America stand for this? No. On behalf of a defrauded public the U.S. Congress intervened. Charlie was called to testify before a House subcommittee. Rumpled, haggard, and humiliated, he was sworn in, took his seat, and read out a statement bemoaning his part in the sordid chapter.

In our various retellings of this national story throughout the last several decades, we’ve tended to frame the quiz show scandals as a seminal loss of “American innocence” at the hands of our first great media manipulators, a cadre of unscrupulous, skinny-tied TV producers and their ad-man accomplices. It was a top-down scam, and the moral seemed clear: watch out for bamboozlers and molders of the public mind.

Maybe you’ve heard that story.

But hang on a minute. If we look at Van Doren’s congressional statement now, today, in the noisome heat and roar of our own disinformed, conspiracy-theory-drenched heyday, what’s immediately striking is Charlie’s phrasing. About his sweat-soaked TV performances, when he stood locked in his glass isolation booth and pretended to grope for answers he already knew, Charlie told the committee:

“I was deeply troubled by the arrangement. As time went on, the show ballooned beyond my wildest expectations. From an unknown college instructor, I became a celebrity. I was almost able to convince myself that it did not matter what I was doing because it was having such a good effect on the national attitude to teachers, education, and the intellectual life. I was able to convince myself that I could make up for it after it was over.”

Twice he says here: I was able to convince myself. And elsewhere in his testimony: I persuaded myself.

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Millions upon millions of people participated, from living rooms all across America, in a new and special kind of self-deception induced by the spectacularly alluring electronic screen.

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Charles Van Doren had been born to a clan of literarians and scholars who publicly extolled disciplined thought, lucid expression, and the examined life. His father, Mark Van Doren, had hosted Invitation to Learning, an old CBS Radio panel show featuring intellectuals in unhurried discussion of Aristotle, Pascal, Lucretius, Tacitus, Dante, Milton. And here was Charlie admitting surrender to the sleazy, factitious spectacle of TV. Surrender, not bamboozlement. In other words, by his own account Charlie had talked himself into accepting the warped logic of the small screen. This logic is still centrally operative on the myriad screens we cling to today: Rewards come to those who fake. Charlie was saying he’d bought into this. He was saying: My Faustian bargain was with myself alone.

The point about these long-ago TV scandals, a point mostly missed in post-mortems ever since, is not that powerful interests shamelessly perpetrated a national fraud. The point is that we saw a profound epistemological shift in American culture. As Lionel Trilling (the great literary critic who was a colleague of the Van Dorens at Columbia) wrote in his 1972 book Sincerity & Authenticity: “The deception we best understand and most willingly give our attention to is that which a person works upon himself.” Ensnared by television, Charlie had deceived himself, and at the height of the quiz show boom, millions upon millions of people like and unlike him participated, from living rooms all across America, in a new and special kind of self-deception induced by the spectacularly alluring electronic screen. This was an end-user issue. Already back then, the enthralled populace watching Charlie’s TV conquest was wondering how one could so glamorously optimize a self for broadcast: Am I smart enough? Good-looking enough? Likeable enough? Can I fake it when I need to? Am I convincing?

It was the young Van Doren’s ethereal performance and everything the performance projected — more than any singular quality of the man himself — that so mesmerized the viewer at home. His clean, coolly black-and-white screeniness made him an avatar every viewer longed to inhabit. The magical question was: How do you make yourself into an image like that?

Given this telegenic wonder of the quiz show, it hardly mattered whether the game and its players were for real. Throughout the national Twenty-One craze many of the show’s avid fans, surveyed by the press, admitted that they didn’t entirely buy the events onscreen, and for most this hardly dimmed their enjoyment. “Everything on TV is somewhat of a lie,” one of them remarked in a straw poll by the Miami Herald, “but it’s still entertainment.”

One week before coming clean to Congress, Charlie graced the cover of Life magazine. Inside those pages, everyday viewers were asked their opinions on the unfolding scandal. A “New York salesgirl” stated she’d rather not know the shows were fixed, adding, “If the contestants were not OK, at least the answers were.” The scandal left another young New Yorker unfazed: “So what? I still think that those guys were smart.” Other respondents shruggingly acknowledged the stupefying power of primetime: “We’re going to go right on watching.” “Television interests people no matter what happens.” The seeming, not the being, was the irresistible point. It’s a short metaphysical distance from there to the solipsistic koan so many of us now live by: If I’m alone, if I’m unseen, if I’m off-screen, do I exist? To appear — and to be dependably visible and available for admiration — is the whole game.

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At every point, overwhelmingly, the screen has drawn us toward counterfeit visions and counterfeit selves in various video permutations.

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In the years to come, that small screen would give Americans much more than they’d bargained for: the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War, Nielsen ratings, the OJ Simpson trial, Reality TV, and the forty-fifth president of the United States.

3.

Charles Van Doren was brilliant and capable, but ultimately a sad figure whose early self-deception seemed to become his lifelong shame. He never escaped the shadow of the quiz show scandals, but lived out of the public eye, occasionally authoring books. He died in 2019. It’s hard not to think that he might have been the perfect person, in his later years, to speak to the long and continual reverberations of the quiz show scandals in our visual media culture.

Today, even if we claim to understand the dramatic ways television redefined American life, we each fiddle endlessly with our own pocket-sized screen. Amassing “likes” and “friends,” we each possess an audience, we know our stats, and so we’re given a devilishly efficient means of quantifying our life experience and rating our onscreen performances. Social life and showmanship, community and gameshow-like competition have blurred entirely. Our rankings are public. Who has the highest score on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram? We seem to think this contest can be won.

The quiz show riggings, culminating in Charlie Van Doren’s ashamed statement to Congress, were the beginning of a techno-cultural remodeling of self and society that has never let up. Our bizarre democratic breakdowns today — breakdowns of discourse, of factual consensus, of civic commonality, of legislative process — are directly related to those half-forgotten events. Back then, the small screen broadcast rigged game shows, and more recently it projected a facsimile of competence and power on The Apprentice seasons one through fourteen. Now it disseminates social media amusement, conspiracy theories, and outrage. At every point, overwhelmingly, the screen has drawn us toward counterfeit visions and counterfeit selves in various video permutations.

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The 45th president troubles us deeply because his actions and words are harmful, yes, but also because we recognize in him our own surrender to the falsity and narcissism of the screen-mind.

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Today, with facts more universally accessible than ever before in history, it is not a top-down bamboozlement that got us to our current place of ideological entrenchment, vicious mutual mistrust, and simmering citizen-to-citizen violence, but rather the decision, made millions and millions of times over by individuals across the country, to bamboozle the self. Most of us are skilled in the same web-enabled tools of self-delusion and self-aggrandizement used so feverishly by our recently departed, twice-impeached president. A white male celebrity whose identity is inextricable from TV, he embraced viral falsehoods and unflaggingly enunciated lies: e.g., Covid is over! The election was stolen! But he was only modeling, albeit with devastating ferocity and consequence, impulses that are alive in all of us, and which our screen-centered technologies intensify. The screen, which seemed at first to give us the wide world, now gives us nothing so much as image after image of our increasingly narrow selves. This thing we believed to be a window is a distorted mirror.

In the 45th president we had a man whose endless fraud was not the product of brilliant calculation but a trademark of delusional screen addiction. His every action was motivated by the screen and his need to reflect there an enviable and commanding person. This man troubles us deeply because his actions and words are harmful, yes, but also because we recognize in him our own surrender to the falsity and narcissism of the screen-mind. We all know a little too well that pathology of posing, of performing a “self” for our own eyes as much as anyone’s. The 45th president was our self-deceiver in chief.

He also troubles us because he appears incapable of recognizing the damage he and his sycophants are wreaking upon our democratic norms and institutions. For his direct incitement of the January 6th violence he should be held responsible, just like the rioters who invaded the capitol. And social media companies — which serve to amplify the lies and hate of violent agitators and endanger democracy in the interest of ad revenue — should be regulated. But let’s awaken to the fact that every one of us, living online as we do, is vulnerable to screen-induced self-deception. Your screen is buzzing for your attention right now, urging you to claim your audience: YouTube wants you to “broadcast yourself” and Facebook asks “do you want to boost this post?” and someone just shared a tweet that mentions you, and 113 people like your video.

In its insanity, January 6th 2021 offered a dangerously real image of the screen-mind at the extremes. Outlandishly costumed, confused, murderous, and festooned with hateful symbols as they smashed and stalked their way through the corridors of the U.S. capitol and into the Senate chamber, that day’s rioters, urged on by the president’s rhetoric, went charging toward their own self-induced delusion in video overdrive. Using the same devices with which they’d cultivated the delusion, now they were out to capture their starring roles in a cinéma vérité action movie. Would it be a hostage thriller? A shootout? The bloody birth of a new republic? Would they die onscreen? It hardly mattered, as long as it was streamed live or uploaded for a like-minded audience of “friends” and followers watching expectantly from home.

It’s crucial that we realize what monstrous things we bring into being, individually and collectively, when we persist in deceiving ourselves.

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M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM’s new novel Q&A reimagines the 1950s quiz show scandals in light of our own time. He is the author of the novels Perpetua’s Kin, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), and Partisans, a short story collection entitled Date of Disappearance, and the nonfiction volumes The Honorable Obscurity Handbook and The Flickering Page: The Reading Experience in Digital Times. The founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books, he produces and hosts In the Atelier, a weekly creativity podcast, and Thoreau’s Leaves: the Thoreau Podcast. Cunningham teaches Creative Writing at Portland State University and UC Berkeley.

Author of the novels Q&A, Perpetua’s Kin, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), Partisans. Founder of Atelier26 Books. MAllenCunningham.com

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