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Pixel Pollution: A Screed Against Screens

This article is more than 6 years old.

On a recent ferry trip to Block Island, I was trying to enjoy the views, the swaying of the boat, and the sense that I was cruising on the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, I was distracted by a seemingly endless, inane and noisy newscast playing in the main cabin, on a TV screen mounted on the wall. From my perch on the sunny deck, I peered inside the dank cabin to see a dozen or so people staring, zombie-like, at the screen.

My first thought: Are we so addicted to the news, or "SportsCenter," or some cheesy infomercial, that we can’t drag ourselves away from the screen during even a short excursion? Come on. It's a 30 minute ferry ride, folks. Thirty minutes.

But, as I considered the situation, my thinking evolved. Sure, I disagreed with the poor schlubs’ decision to stay indoors instead of out. But if they had needed a seat, or it had been raining, they wouldn’t have had a choice but to come in contact with the blaring TV set.

That’s because screens are everywhere.

I find this encroachment on public space offensive. At what point do we say, "Enough"?

And I'm not talking about smartphones, tablets and computers. They've proliferated too, but ostensibly these devices are under our individual control. We can shut them off.

I'm talking about ubiquitous pixel pollution in public places. Screens — be they televisions, monitors scrolling advertisements, or giant digital billboards — are becoming increasingly inescapable.

First, they invaded airports, bars and restaurants. Then came monitors installed in the backseats of taxi cabs, inside buses, and erected on subway platforms — not to mention in backseats of SUVs.

Now, there's a screen affixed to every pump at my local gas station. And one on the waiting room wall of my doctor's office. I've even seen TVs projected onto hotel bathroom mirrors. Do we really need to see the latest Red Sox highlights while we're standing at the urinal? Apparently, so.

It's not fair. These screens mesmerize us when we're most vulnerable. Whether we're relieving ourselves or trapped in an elevator, en route to the 27th floor, it's nearly impossible to look away.

An early television model is demonstrated by Philco Radio and Television Corporation, Aug. 11, 1936. (AP)
An early television model is demonstrated by Philco Radio and Television Corporation, Aug. 11, 1936. (AP)

What's next? Flashing images passing on the side of a bus? Outside schools? Cloth-like screens on baseball caps or T-shirts — allowing anyone to broadcast a personal message as they walk down the street? In fact, that technology might not be as far fetched as one might think. (But message-displayers beware: We know from recent local history that DIY screens and devices can sometimes end in disaster.)

I find this encroachment on public space offensive. At what point do we say, "Enough"? We don't want every square inch of our spatial real estate colonized by squawking boxes. We're distracted enough by our personal devices. Can't advertisers and media-makers just leave us alone? Help us restore some dignity to our shared spaces so we might have enough peace and quiet to read a book, lose ourselves in our own thoughts, or — egad — actually engage someone in conversation?

Alas, we'd better get used to this new screen-erific world. According to one report, while spending on traditional advertising (broadcast, print, and Internet) is flat or in decline, "out-of-home" advertising, which reaches consumers in public places, is on the rise. Outdoor advertising revenue grew by 5 percent in the second quarter of this year alone, to $2.2 billion, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Big LCD "public display" sales are skyrocketing; one industry study forecasts that, globally, 60-inch and larger screens will triple their presence to more than 1 million units by 2017.

In the war against pixel pollution, the off switch — if you can find it -- is your greatest weapon.

There are at least some pockets of resistance — a few soldiers fighting to reclaim our public space. Here in Massachusetts, an effort by Clear Channel Communications to install 18 electronic billboards — those gigantic, hypnotizing things you increasingly see looming over the Interstate — has been stymied. Former Mass. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Mayors Thomas M. Menino of Boston and Joseph Curtatone of Somerville have persuaded the Department of Transportation to table the digital billboard deal, for now.

But overall, the march of the pixels seems unstoppable. Given they're such a growth area for marketers, electronic annoyances are likely here to stay. Publicly-owned entities like the MBTA are so desperate for funds, their need to pimp out every square inch of their stations and train cars for advertising revenue is understandable. And because we're watching less TV, advertisers are bound to track us down where ever they can find us — like when we're waiting for a train, or riding in the back of a taxi, or even peeing.

I fear it's only a matter of time before our cities look like the visual deluge that Ridley Scott envisioned in his 1982 sci-fi film "Blade Runner" — a cacophony of moving images taking up entire sides of skyscrapers.

So here's one final subversive trick,  seemingly right out of Ridley Scott's futuristic playbook. Arm yourself with one of these devices. Don’t leave home without it. In the war against pixel pollution, the off switch — if you can find it -- is your greatest weapon.


This program aired on September 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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