We are surrounded today, everywhere, all the time, by arrays of multiple, simultaneous images—in the streets, airports, shopping centers, and gyms, as well as on our computers and television sets. This was already clear in the 1990s, when the interface became multiple windows and when I started to think about this new condition in which the idea of a single image commanding our attention began to fade away. It seems as if we need to be distracted in order to concentrate, as if we—all of us living in this new kind of space, the space of information—could be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. The state of distraction in the metropolis, described so eloquently by Walter Benjamin early in the twentieth century, seems to have been replaced by a new form of distraction, which is to say, a new form of attention. Rather than wander cinematically through the city, we now look in one direction and see many moving images juxtaposed, more than we can possibly synthesize or reduce to a single impression. We hardly even notice it. It seems as natural as simply breathing in the information. This effect is multiplied and intensified as screens keep getting closer and closer to our bodies, even becoming part of our body. We now experience the city inside the screen itself; the city we are only vaguely aware of just beyond the edge of the screen.
How would one go about writing a history of this form of perception? Should one go back to television studios or control rooms, with theirs wall of monitors?; or to Cape Canaveral to look at its mission-control room?; or should one even go back to World War II, when so-called situation rooms were envisioned with multiple projectors bringing information from all over the world, presenting it side by side for instant analysis by military commanders and political leaders?
But it is not simply the military in general or war technology in particular that has defined this new form of perception. Designers, architects and artists were involved from the beginning, playing a crucial role in the evolution of multiscreen and multimedia techniques of information presentation. While artists’ use of these techniques tends to be associated with the Happenings and Expanded Cinema of the 1960s, architects were involved much earlier and in very different contexts, such as military operations and governmental propaganda campaigns. Take the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where the US government enlisted some of the country’s most sophisticated designers. The exhibition was a Cold War operation in which Charles and Ray Eames’s multiscreen technique turned out to be a powerful weapon.
To reconstruct a little bit of the atmosphere: the United States and USSR had agreed in 1958 to exchange national exhibits on science, technology and culture. Following a Soviet exhibit in New York City early in 1959, in July Vice President Richard Nixon arrived in Moscow to open the exhibition, where he engaged in a heated debate with Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the virtues of the American way of life—an exchange that became known as the “Kitchen Debate,” as it took place in the kitchen of a suburban house split in half to allow easy viewing.