Shattered Screens – A Horror Story

I saw a performance today, one that most of us have seen (“us” being any member of society at large that has access to this blog post, one way or another) and have probably been a part of. It only took about a minute of my time to watch, so it should take even less time to describe:

I, the spectator and probably the sole audience member, was walking down the street. A grey sky, a few drops of rain, slick pavement, and hooded faces created the backdrop as four or five performers entered the stage (if the stage is the sidewalk, the car that they were getting out of would have been stage right — on the performers’ right if they are facing the audience). Energy exuded from this group of friends, as they laughed about some joke that was still ringing in their ears from the car ride and they circled and danced around each other as they started making their way down the street.

And then it drops, and time froze.

Face down on the pavement the iPhone (6, 6s, or 7, from the size of it and “rose gold” color) rested and each member of the group shared the same expression. Time slowed to a stop until one brave actor reached down to inspect the damage. The audience was not close enough to see the damage for themselves, but as the laughter and banter picked back up it was implied that the day of the phone owner had not been ruined by a shattered screen.

Scene (or blackout, if we’re considering this a dance).

As you can imagine, a brief moment of fear struck my heart as I empathized with the person who had just dropped hundreds of dollars worth of material on the pavement. I, too, am familiar with the feeling that comes with seeing your life face down on the ground — a dangerous position for an iPhone to be in, as any owner of one knows.

But then I started grinning and laughed a little bit to myself as my performance studies brain took over and started to analyze the moment. Any of my friends at school can attest to the fact that I’m becoming more and more obsessed with ideas surrounding the performance of the every day (largely due to the fact that I’m taking two performance theory classes, one of which really hammers in ideas about this topic). I’ve been consuming jargon that tries to pick apart performances of race, gender, and sexuality, among many other things– for example, how we identify with these things or don’t identify or try to go beyond or try to emphasize, to name a few — but in this moment I was particularly interested in how we are choreographed by every element of our everyday. I was most focused on how we are choreographed by the technologies that we attach ourselves to (she writes as she performs writing a blog post from her MacBook Pro — her eyebrows wrinkling as she realizes she doesn’t know which letters in “MacBook” are to be capitalized per Apple’s naming and her model not having it labeled at the bottom of the screen).

I had the opportunity to attend a conference on Brown’s campus a few weeks ago that brought together people who were interested in both/either performance and/or technology and wanted to talk to other people who wanted to explore their intersections. This has more recently become an area of focus for me, and, in pursing a degree in both Computer Science and Performance Studies, is something that I will obviously be examining more and more as time goes on and hopefully until I die a technologically mediated and somewhat performative death (italicized because I’m proud of this description and hope I die this way). I talked about a lot of things at this conference with a lot of people older than me (I would say “adults” or as a friend of mine would say “adulty-adults” but after spending time in close proximity with adulty adults at this conference, I’ve become disillusioned by the idea of adulthood, something I’ll probably explore later via blog post) and a question that was posed to us after a movement exercise provided a frame for the particular performance that I saw today.

I’m paraphrasing, but the question we were asked or the thought that we were told to consider was how we are choreographed by our technologies. We were told to think of any choreographies as they directly pertained to our technologies — and technology here is loose, because in order for something to be a “technology”, it doesn’t need to have a screen — and the choreographies that we were coming up with made up an endless list. Think about how you interact with your smartphone if you have one. Without loss of generality (wow, discrete math jargon!!), I’ll assume that you’re an iPhone user since that’s what I have so I know how it works. Think of the swipe gestures that (I’m pretty sure?) Apple has copyrighted, movements that they choreograph and intend to be credited for. The swiping between home screen apps (unless you’re like me and just have one page of folders — which is by far more efficient @all of my friends that roll their eyes at me and my folders), the expanding of two fingers to zoom in, the scrolling, and I’m sure there are more that I’m too lazy to pick up my phone to remember. And then if you have some sort of Apple laptop, the three finger swipe up to see all of your windows, the four finger flick out to move all of your windows to see your desktop, you see where I’m going with this?

This is really just a long-winded way for me to say that if you don’t consider yourself a performer, you are and you have been choreographed in ways that extend beyond how you use your phone. We have been scripted and instructed by the devices that have become an extension of the arm for many people and our interactions with them and how they fit into the performance of our every day contribute to the improvisations that we carry out in every second. This morning (morning being 1pm), my phone rang, instructing me to wake up (curtain rising on the stage of my consciousness). I answered, to which my grumbly voice instructed my mom to hang up and tell me to call back — a movement that I have choreographed on her (which I actually find really funny) since she knows that I hate being woken up, and she also knows that I’m useless and can’t communicate properly right when I’ve woken up anyway. I then rolled over to try and go back to sleep, then after about ten minutes resigned to my awakened state, and reached for my phone. I swiped through Instagram, I marked several emails as read by swiping towards the left (but not too much, so that I wouldn’t accidentally archive the message), I tapped on Facebook notifications, and completed this every day performance before calling my mom back.

The familiar hunch over a computer, the glance and then flip of a phone to put it face down on a table after it dings while you’re at dinner with someone maybe less interesting than whatever popped up but that you’re supposed to pay attention to, and the stroke of fear through the body when that device is face down on the pavement, are all ways in which our digital technologies have choreographed us.

I could ramble on more about how non-digital mediums have given us our scripts and stage directions. Maybe you perform differently with certain groups of friends because of the directions they have given you (implicitly, usually), or your racialization (interesting note, that “racialization” auto-corrects to “radicalization” — what are you trying to say Apple?) informs how your perform yourself in spaces where everyone looks like you versus spaces where no one does, or your gender identity influences your costume design — your costume being the clothes you buy, the makeup you wear, any and all elements that together create your aesthetic. Everything you consume, every space you are positioned in, willingly and not, and the other performers you surround yourself with influence and choreograph your performance.

So when are you not performing, if ever? And how are you performing, and what are you performing? How does your audience perceive your performance, maybe as a direct correlation to how long you spend staring at a screen, as an example?

Just something to think about the next time you’re walking down the street or find your iPhone lying prone on the pavement.

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