This post of mine was originally published over at ThinkChristian.net (original here). Here is the manuscript, slightly altered.
September 7, 1927. That 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 TV programming (1948) to computers, digital cameras, smart phones and 3D TVs, this entire 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.
Take, for example, the image above. While the image is of two human subjects, it subtly invites the viewer to see not subjects but objects. When you stare at these people, they do not truly stare back. You may stare all you like. There is no reciprocation, no awkwardness, no shame. You the viewer are in control. It is not a human subject to which you relate, but an image - an object.
Now, 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 we in the U.S. see anywhere from 3-5,000 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 kind of piece 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 as 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 utilized for our own benefit. The proliferation of screens only furthers this trend.
As a devoted Christian and avid participant in screen culture, I have struggled with my own propensity to objectify other human beings both on and off screen. But over time I have found that if I pray for the other human being, whether imaged on screen or in person, it is extremely difficult to objectify that person. When I pray for my sister or brother, I no longer view them as an object but as a subject, a beloved child of God. I pray the object back to life.
When we see others as subjects instead of objects, I believe that we heed Jesus’ call to love our neighbors. Jesus challenges the objectification of any human being by naming them "neighbor."