This is What You Look Like Right Now.

by Randall Cleveland

We spend a LOT of time looking at screens these days. Televisions, smart phones, tablets, laptops, monitors, desktop computers, and other electronic stuff I'm sure I'm forgetting have become so ubiquitous that the human experience is starting to move towards sitting, stooped over, and passively absorbing information rather than, y'know, running or swimming or talking to people. Kyle McDonald's been thinking about that fact a lot, so he set up an art project on the subject over at People Staring at Computers. Here's a video about it with the most annoying music I've ever encountered on the internet:

People Staring at Computers from Kyle McDonald on Vimeo.

 

Kyle went to the Apple store and rigged up the display devices to periodically snap a photo with their webcams, capturing whoever happened to be staring at the screen at that moment, then display said picture on the monitor so that person could see what they look like as they gaze, hypnotized, into the screen. It's the sort of thing that would be a mildly-amusing prank, if it weren't for the horribly depressing results.

Screen shot 2011-07-13 at 10.22.50 AM
"This is where the mugshots happen, right?"


What becomes all-too-readily apparent is that almost no one in these photos seems happy. Granted, they're staring at floor model computers while contemplating a major purchase or possibly just wasting time while their spouse finishes some shopping or something, but no one really seems to be enjoying themselves. Yes, it's not fair to judge them in this split-second where they've unwittingly had a photo taken. They had no time to prepare themselves, and it's not like they were engaged in a conversation, but it's easy to lose sight of how you look; not so much "how you look" as in, "oh crap, I can't believe my hair looks that stupid," but more along the lines of "how you look" as in "if I encountered you on the street looking like that, I would cross the street." Think I'm exaggerating? Go back to the video: the woman at 1:40 can't even bear to look at her own face when it pops up. 
 

Screen shot 2011-07-13 at 10.22.56 AM
"Excuse me, do you have the ti- Uh, nevermind."

Obviously we can't look at these people and say they're sociopaths just because they weren't smiling at the time, but we're social animals: we've developed incredible pattern recognition skills to recognize the most minute cues in our fellow manimals so we can know at all times just how they're feeling and where we stand in our social circle. Which is why most of us can at least plaster on a fake smile to get through the day, or scowl menacingly if we don't want to be bothered. 

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No idea why people don't just strike up conversations with strangers any more.


So what's the big deal? It's just an interesting thing to keep in mind about all the things technology does. It's not just a panacea that gives and gives and only makes things easier and better. At some point you have to stop, look around at your fellow humans stooped over and scowling at little screens, filling spreadsheets or flinging birds at pigs, and realize this is not exactly living life to the fullest. Maybe you should take a walk or something. 

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"Right after I finish inviting my 800 closest friends to Google+."


And Kyle McDonald makes a good point as well: this is what our machines see every time we interact with them. It doesn't matter so much right now, but it's possible that in my lifetime we'll see thinking, sentient computers that could rival the human brain in computational power and information storage. Do you think they're going to want to keep doing all our work if every time they look up they see your furrowed, disapproving glare? 

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Our thoughts exactly, man-or-possibly-woman in the background.

 

Am I blowing the whole thing out of proportion? Is technology doing more harm than good? Let me know in the comments. Bonus points if you post a picture from your own webcam of what you look like while staring at your computer screen!