Matt Thompson on the limits of the screen
Matt Thompson is the editor in chief of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing editor at The Atlantic.
In the “Before World,” so many people had become obsessed with the concept of scale. Growth, unquestioned, unencumbered, was the prerogative for more and more of life. In Silicon Valley, near where I live, talk turned endlessly on hunts for “unicorns,” companies that could dominate industries and mint billionaires, even if it took billions of dollars of investment for them to stop losing money. And those investors obsessed with scale tended to favor technologies that replaced humans with screens whenever possible, creating a world in which entry required narrowing one’s gaze to the size of a miniature screen and ignoring how much smaller and dimmer the world began to seem.
If you were one of the people making a living in this screen-world, COVID-19 has likely tested the limits of how much of your time and attention you are willing to invest in screens. Authentic human connections scale poorly.
You may have realized with dawning horror how successful screens have become at obscuring the humanity behind them. Platforms have been funded, at significant losses, that allowed people to get into a person’s car and travel across town without ever talking to the driver, or get groceries without ever seeing the grocer, much less those who grew and harvested the food. As my organization, Reveal, has reported, Amazon, a company that has overtaken retail with brutal efficiency, has subordinated its workers to its technology so thoroughly that its already-high rates of serious injury are even worse in its automated warehouses.
In my industry of journalism, attention and money have accrued disproportionately to camera-friendly stories about distant, abstract national and international events, rendering invisible the many, many important stories taking shape in the streets and yards around us, and making individuals feel powerless to shape the communities in which they live.
As artists and storytellers, we must recommit ourselves to making visible and tangible the natural, largely human ecosystem that sustains us. As journalists, we must tell stories that can have a meaningful and positive impact on the lives of the people in them, as well as those who encounter them. Screens are an inevitable part of that creation, and for some of us, such as workers who’ve been demanding remote work accommodations from employers that allow them to make maximal use of their abilities, screens are a vital part of any future. But they must be reimagined as tools to affirm and reinforce humanity, rather than abstracting it away.
We should be suspicious of indicators that diminish individual voices into simple transactions of likes, shares, and money, instead favoring systems that reward and promote meaningful dialogue and connection between people.
We should use our resources to nourish creators who have demonstrated durable, sustainable impact at the community level, rather than merely those who have captured mass reach and attention.
And we should widen our gaze to the world outside of our screens, considering who the screens exclude and what we can do to make their world better.
This essay is part of CREATIVE FUTURES, a series of provocations by thinkers across the arts, documentary, and journalism on how to reimagine their sectors.