Screen images as neighbors

Joshua Walters

Sept. 7, 1927, is the date of the first electronic video image. Since then the electronic screen has evolved into the hottest commodity in Western culture. From the inaugural television programming (1948) to computers, digital cameras, smart phones and 3-D TVs, this phenomenon is what I and others call "screen culture." If you're reading this sentence then you too participate in screen culture. What you may not know, however, is that screen images subtly affect the way you see other human beings.

One Stanford professor believes that the quantity of time we spend with screens (rather than face-to-face) is affecting our ability to connect with one another. While I agree, I am more concerned here with the direct effect that certain screen images have on us; namely, images of other human beings.

What happens when we see hundreds of virtual screen people every day? I believe that we learn the habit of seeing other human beings as objects instead of subjects. Put another way, screen images decrease empathy.

Studies estimate that viewers in the United States see as many as 5,000 ads per day. In ads, the imaged person is so often tied to the marketed product that s/he becomes mingled with the product, a mere extension of the object. In addition to ads, Americans spend hours viewing virtual humans through various screen mediums (TV, movies, video games, etc.). There can be little doubt that seeing so many screen versions of humanity affects the way we see humanity off the screen. I find it hard to believe that anyone could spend hours playing "Call of Duty" (i.e. pretending to kill human beings) and not be influenced to view human life as expendable. I also find it hard to believe that anyone could spend hours gazing at porn and not be influenced to see others as objects for pleasure. I mention these examples because the images that flood our screens are increasingly violent and sexual.

Objectification is certainly not a new trend for humankind. Ever since Descartes we have tended to view the world outside of ourselves as an object to be controlled and exploited for our own benefit. The proliferation of screens only furthers this trend.

As a devoted Christian and avid participant in screen culture, I too struggle with the propensity to objectify other human beings both on and off screen. But over time I have found that prayer offers a mysteriously effective means to overcome this habit. When I pray for the other human being, whether imaged or in person, it is extremely difficult to see them as an object. When I pray for another, I no longer view them as an object, but rather as a subject. I see them as a sister or brother and as a beloved child of God. Prayer can literally change the way we relate to others.

Jesus challenges the objectification of any human being by naming them “neighbor.” This term is too intimate to permit objectification. In an age of virtual human beings, praying for others can rescue us from this habit of screen culture. May we learn the habit of seeing not objects, but neighbors.

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

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