1 Oct 2018

Screen Saver

Creative Partner, Paul Cardwell, writes in Computer Arts on one of the greatest inventions of our time.  

I write in praise of screens, making no apology for I feel no shame. I was educated by screens, entertained by screens and informed by screens. I say this knowing full well of the violent reaction, driven by brute prejudice, against screens today.

When young folks are engrossed in a screen old people fume and tut. They are accused of ruining their eyesight, failing to develop social skills, and becoming isolated loners. They are one step away from mail order assault rifles and that last trip to school.

This is sheer, blind bigotry. And it was never more obvious than with the viral photo of the young people in the Rijksmuseum engrossed in their screens. A worldwide wail of outrage assailed this image. It was “the Decline of Western Civilisation” (an expression actually used). The ignorant young were ignoring Rembrandt to text their friends.

There are a number of things wrong with this dumb Daily Mail conclusion. For one thing, they aren’t studying The Night Watch for the very good reason that it’s behind them. The picture in front of them, if I remember the layout of the Rijksmuseum, is Vermeer’s beautiful study of the street where he was born. And they are not ignoring it. Having looked at it, they are studying it via the museum’s excellent app. They are learning about the life of that lonely perfectionist from Delft.

In fact, when I look at this picture it’s quite touching how focussed they are, how hard they are working. I want to say: “relax, it’s only art and it’s meant to be enjoyed.”

But they were using screens to do it, that’s what’s unforgivable. If they were peering at books, that would be fine. Encouraged, indeed. But screens are somehow seen as an unworthy, secondrate way to impart information. Nothing worthwhile was ever learned from screens. The worst book is more reliable than the finest documentary. This is obviously nonsense, so silly it’s not worth refuting.

Instead, I look over my shoulder at a life of learning from screens. It began with TV. Like everyone else in this business I was born in a place that no one has heard of, in a street that most people will never visit. Not a bad place, but for a teenager interested in the arts it may as well have been the moon.


I don’t dislike books. In fact, I live in a home that is littered with hundreds of them. But they are not my only source of information, they are not even my best source of information. That is, and always will be, on screen.

In the pale blue glow of a cathode ray tube I devoured Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, three decades of South Bank Shows and countless omnibuses, Arenas and late shows. The people on the screen spoke about paintings as if they saw them every day. There was somebody who had actually seen a Jackson Pollock. “Could such a person exist?” I thought.

And then there were documentaries. Panorama and This Week, urgently challenging the official version of events and putting evidence on screen to support their case. It was shocking, provocative, new. And it was all watchable on a screen.

And screens changed history. The Vietnam War ended because Americans couldn’t bear to turn on their televisions. The lies got too big for the screen. And little did we know, that was all before the real show would begin.

Enter the internet. This is the greatest invention of our time. One of the greatest of all time, a huge feat of the human imagination that will transform our destiny like printing or the wheel.

Here, on a screen you can hold in the palm of your hand, is all the information in the world and it’s easily accessible. Here is what is happening, as it’s happening, all over the world. Here is everything that ever happened, recorded and preserved for all to enjoy.

It’s bad news for dictators and tyrants. Lies are exposed, deceptions revealed. There is no hiding place. You might think that you have buried something today, but some time, somewhere, it will resurface.

On the other hand, it’s good news for dancing cats. Who’d have thought that superstardom would come so easily?

So, young people like those in the Rijksmuseum should not be penalised for the time they spend online; they should be encouraged. It’s the real world that they are engrossed in. Of course, much of it is trivial. It should be, that’s how any of us manage to stay sane. It’s hard to deny that they are getting better information than any generation has ever had before them. And that can only mean better decisions are set to come in the future.

First published in Computer Arts Magazine.