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From Netflix to TikTok: How did we all become so obsessed with screens?

Martin Scorsese recently implored viewers not to watch his new film on the phone. Phones, TV and games constantly vie for our attention, but how much do they add to our lives?

From Netflix to TikTok: How did we all become so obsessed with screens?

(Photo: Unsplash/Sandra Dubosq)

The French poet and essayist Paul Valery wrote in 1928: “I do not know whether a philosopher has ever dreamt of a company engaged in the home delivery of sensory reality.”

He was intrigued by the idea: “It will be wonderfully pleasant to be able to transform at will an empty hour, an interminable evening, an endless Sunday, into an enchantment, an expression of tenderness, a flight of the spirit.”

(Photo: Unsplash/Gnider Tam)

Home delivery of sensory reality is now engaging many companies, from Walt Disney to Netflix and ByteDance, the Chinese parent of the 15-second video platform TikTok. High-definition images will soon appear as holograms or pictures on virtual-reality spectacles. For now, most are displayed on flat screens large and small – cinemas, televisions, tablets and phones.


Two moments stick in my mind from a decade of the human love affair with screens.

One is Steve Jobs’ 2010 appearance at an Apple event in California to launch the iPad, his follow-up to the most influential gadget since the television, the iPhone. The set was almost bare apart from a leather sofa that Jobs sat on halfway through his talk, theatrically holding the device.

The memorable aspect of his pose was that Jobs was not merely showing off a new product; he was portraying a new way of life. The primary form of home entertainment would transform from the family gathered around one television to each member holding a tablet. As they reached out to touch their own flickering panes of glass, the images would obey them.

Apple Computer Inc. Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs holds the new iPhone in San Francisco, California January 9, 2007. (File Photo: REUTERS/Kimberly White)

A tablet revolution did not happen: 10 years later, the television still holds pride of place in most living rooms, with more pixels packed into bigger screens.

For those millennials who have ditched the TV altogether, the multipurpose laptop seems to be the viewing mechanism of choice. Aircraft passengers will sometimes prop iPads on tray tables, preferring their own downloads to the films on the screens in front of them. Instead of conquering, tablets have added to the plethora of devices.

The second moment was in August last year, watching on my iPhone a live stream of Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a champion Fortnite player, making a move from the games streaming platform Twitch to Microsoft’s Mixer. Microsoft was harnessing Blevins’ celebrity by getting him to play the game, with its quirky celebration dances, in front of devoted admirers on Mixer.

A live crowd gathered in a studio to cheer him in person as he fluently navigated the game’s challenges. On my phone, I watched these people watching him as he fought distant rivals on a computer screen, with the stream of comments bubbling to the side of the action. A hall of mirrors reflected the celebrity whose job description would have been inexplicable until now.


Walt Disney first captured the emotional power of figures projected on to a big screen at more than 12 frames per second. At the premiere of Snow White in Los Angeles in 1937, the audience wept audibly at the scene where the Seven Dwarfs discover the poisoned princess. Getting attached to a Fortnite player may be eccentric, but Snow White did not even exist in real life.

Fortnite has more than 200 million registered players, many of them children. (Photo: AFP/Frederic J Brown)

Musing on the growth of celebrity in his 2016 book Wonderland, Steven Johnson writes of the technology’s “ability to distort reality, making it impossible for us not to see things that are empirically not there. At 12 frames per second, with synchronised sound and close-ups, it is almost impossible for human beings not to form emotional connections with people on screen.”

The big screen is uniquely powerful. Eve Arnold’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits in 1960 show her glamour but cannot convey the full impact of seeing her walk and talk on screen.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s film-length exposures of the screens in classic cinemas, radiating their otherworldly light, express the way the audience is transfixed and transported.

As screens have multiplied, so have the famous. “Any man today can lay claim to being filmed,” wrote the German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his 1935 essay The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. “Thus the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.”

The smartphone camera has turned his prediction into reality.


What would Benjamin have made of TikTok, the app on which teenagers lip-sync and dance to the same tunes, often competing to make mini-dramas that fit the rules of the latest viral meme?

A screengrab shows a video of TikTok creator Charli D'Amelio (@charlidamelio) taking part in a holiday marketing campaign on TikTok for beauty brand eos Products. TikTok via REUTERS

One study calls the TikTok form “intensified play (in which) videos are squeezed to the 15-second timeline, moving faster and more theatrically” than other user-generated videos.

“Please, please don’t look at it on a phone,” Martin Scorsese implored viewers of The Irishman, his recent film starring an artificially de-aged Robert De Niro, as if streaming on Netflix were an auteur’s gamble with an irresponsible audience.

But most teenagers spend more time playing around in portrait mode, Instagramming or sending emojis than sitting spellbound in cinemas.

Playing on screens can be addictive. One study of US adolescents found that those spending the least amount of time on devices such as phones were happiest, while intense users were sadder, less satisfied with their lives and suffered lower self-esteem. “Sometimes, I think that I am no good at all,” was one test statement with which too many agreed.

That is the opposite of Valery’s predicted enchantment or Benjamin’s view of cinema that “burst this vision-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go travelling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow-motion, movement is extended.” He believed screens liberated us.

What went wrong? Perhaps nothing did and every aspect of lives, good and bad, has been digitised. From Monroe’s glamour and the intimate texting captured by Jeff Mermelstein on the streets of New York, to Twitter trolling and the jealousy of watching others lead happier lives on Instagram, all experiences are on display.

Like Narcissus by the pool, we cannot help staring at our reflection.

By John Gapper © 2020 The Financial Times