Screened Out

It took a trip to MIT’s new media lab to realize that the era of the computer screen may be over.

Sometime back in the 1990s, I made a case for screens—video monitors, computer displays—as the architectural ornament of our time. As Notre Dame has gargoyles, we have our screen-size talking heads. For this, I apologize. I’ve now decided that it’s time for the age of the ubiquitous screen to be over. I’ve attended an NHL game and a couple of NBA games in recent months and noticed that advertising, replays, cheerleading animations, and mini documentaries now overwhelm the live action that fans have paid to see. I’ve eaten dinner in the Screening Room of Times Square’s ESPN Zone, which has screens like Versailles has mirrors. By the time the meal was over, any lingering affection I may have had for the screen as an aesthetic object was history. I recently stayed in a Las Vegas hotel room that had three big-screen televisions, one TV embedded in the bathroom mirror, and several handheld screens for controlling all of them. The other night on I-91 I noticed a minivan with not one but two backseat video screens. I am burned out on screens.

Fortunately, I think the age of the screen as an attention-hogging, room-filling, all-purpose information-device-cum-decorative-element may be nearing a close. My evidence for this is thin; screens big and small are still proliferating. But I’ve had a series of conversations with interior designers about what the future might look like, and most of them downplayed technology’s role in their aesthetic. Words like authentic and homelike have replaced wired or smart. And I take it as a good sign that in New York, the gathering places for a new generation of digital entrepreneurs are self-consciously creaky: the new Breslin at the Ace Hotel, the old NoHo hangout Tom & Jerry’s, “a place so low tech you can’t even run up a credit card tab,” as Susan Dominus writes in the New York Times.

And paradoxically, the iPad might be the device that finally makes screen-saturated environments a thing of the past. I’m hoping this svelte, all-purpose gizmo sparks new technologies that will render all those other screens clumsy, uncool, redundant. This won’t happen immediately, and it will probably never happen at sports venues; but elsewhere—bars, clubs, living rooms, the backseats of taxis—the big screens, the medium screens, and perhaps even some of the little bitty ones will become as superfluous as pay phones.

Oddly, it was a recent visit to MIT that suggested that this might be more than wishful thinking on my part, that perhaps the technological project we embarked on in 1990s, the relocation of all our transactions and interactions to screens, is pretty much over. In March I headed to Cambridge for the unveiling of a $90 million expansion of the famous Media Lab, long crammed into the 1985 I.M. Pei–designed building next door. The new structure, known as E14, is a handsome, silvery-gray glass box hidden behind an aluminum scrim. It’s mostly rectilinear, although the roof rounds and pops up at one corner. Designed by Fumihiko Maki, it’s not a landmark, although it’s easy to pick out from the far bank of the Charles. And it’s not an example of Big Statement Architecture, like the famously leaky Stata Center, home to MIT’s artificial-intelligence community. Frank Gehry designed that $300 million building, completed in 2004, as an homage to the complexity of the work taking place there, but it wound up reading like a parody of complexity. (When asked his opinion of the Stata Center, which is visible from E14’s roof deck, Gary Kamemoto, an architect and the director of Maki and Associates, was diplomatic: “When we were designing this, the Stata Center did not exist. Mr. Maki and I have not been to the Stata Center. We just come from Logan [Airport].” Pressed on whether MIT administrators voiced their concerns about the Stata Center, Maki recalls being told, “You have to be a little more careful in design.”)

E14’s most striking feature is inside: a five-story white atrium from which you can see the staggered floors of glass-walled labs. At an opening-day press conference, Kamemoto pointed out the visibility of the scientific work, saying that people should be able to “see all the research going on from the lobby.” The Maki team began working on the Media Lab in 1998 and in the ensuing years managed to create, through restraint and a much gentler approach to metaphor than Gehry’s, a building that suggests a healthier relationship with technology than Stata’s. The primary idea conveyed by this architecture is not complexity but transparency or translucency. Kamemoto stressed that if the new Media Lab was created in reaction to any building, it was the old one: “They almost wanted to turn that building inside out.”

While the old building tends to be dark, with narrow windows that appear opaque, E14 is light filled. But what impressed me about the new building was the research conducted there. The Media Lab is renowned, in the words of its director, Frank Moss, for its “unmatched creative freedom,” and this freedom is generally attained through generous corporate support. Indeed, many of the labs have names befitting ballparks: the MasterCard Lab for Future Transactions, the Motorola Innovation Lab. Other unnamed labs are awaiting sponsorship. This corporate largesse virtually guarantees that what goes on at the Media Lab will eventually find its way into products and impact our everyday lives—sooner rather than later.

In the old days (meaning the 1990s), all of the Media Lab’s work seemed designed to squeeze more of the world onto screens. But just about everything I saw while I wandered from lab to lab involved embedded computing, technology applied to physical objects: computer-guided plush toys; piles of beads read by a computer to create topographic modeling; a haptic telephone capable of transmitting physical gestures, such as a hand squeeze. Computers are still integral, but the screen isn’t the focal point.

In the Nicolas G. Hayek Swatch Lab, I met Noah Feehan, a research assistant working under the auspices of the Opera of the Future group. He showed me his baby, a program that creates geographically specific MP3 playlists. “It plays songs as you walk,” he says. “I can make a whole playlist for Kendall Square.” Feehan’s Web site explains the intention of his project: “Syncwalks are a conceptual exercise for you, a friend, and a place.” He instructs readers to “find a collection of beautiful/interesting/secret spaces within walking distance of each other” and “find the music you would most like to hear in these places.” His final version of Syncwalk won’t require the friend; it will be GPS-driven and designed to run as an application.

Feehan’s approach, in particular, made me optimistic about the current state of technological culture—not just because his project suggested that there are MIT researchers who actually go out for a walk from time to time but because it made me think we’re approaching a point where technology can inhabit an environment without overwhelming it. If that’s so, then maybe we’ve also reached some sort of screen apogee, and we might, one of these days, start getting rid of them.

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