Against Public Video Screens

Think twice before deploying video screens and digital signage on campus.

October 30, 2014

In almost every way I think that world is getting better. That I’d rather be 44 (the age that I am now) in 2014 than in 2004 or 1984 or 1964. (Or any other year that ends in 4).  

I believe that higher education is better today than it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago. Our students are better. Our classes are better. Our faculty are better. And I believe that higher education will be even better in 2024 (and 2034) than it is today.

There are areas, however, where I think we are going backwards.   

The big regression that I’d like to call out today is the proliferation of public screens. I hate public video screens. I hate public video screens in airports. I hate public video screens on campuses.  I hate public video screens in waiting rooms.  

The metastasis of public video screens makes activities such as quiet contemplation, reading, and writing all the more difficult.  The worst cases are when the screens are making noise. When a screen is showing video with volume.  These screens started in airports and waiting rooms, and have spread to gas pumps and taxi cabs and even elevators.  A captive audience of eyeballs in which to show ads.

At some airports or waiting rooms it is very difficult to get away from the screen noise. Even if it is possible to sit so that you are not distracted by the images on the screen you hear the audio.  

There is a level of noise pollution in our world that we have somehow begun to take as acceptable.  Every sporting event seems to blast music at each stoppage of the clock.  Wedding DJ’s blast music at decibels that close out any possibility of conversation.  Web pages load with audio and video.   

Disturbingly, I see the screen creep starting to make its way to our bucolic campuses.  This horror goes by the benign name of digital signage.  Don’t be fooled.  Even audio free video screens (digital signs) in public areas are distracting in the extreme.  Sitting in a public area on campus to read or write while simultaneously trying to ignore a video screen a few feet away is a recipe for distraction and fatigue.  

If you are in charge of public screens and digital signage on your campus (or within campus buildings), please think very carefully before placing these things.  Never put a video screen near any tables, benches, or seats where people may want to work quietly.  Don’t assume that just because the screen has no audio that it is not distracting.  There is almost never a reason to have a screen showing a video loop or a cable news feed.  If a screen is to be used in the context of an exhibit that is great, but be sure that the placement of the exhibit is well away from any study or collaboration areas.

Have you seen the number of public video screens proliferate on your campus?

Is there anyone charged with watching out for those of us that most value quiet spaces free of visual and audio distractions?

Can you think of other examples, beyond the growing level of ambient video and public noise, where our world (and our campuses) are going backwards?


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