Next week, the ABC sitcom Modern Family will air an episode filmed entirely with iPhones. The action occurs on the characters' screens as they Facetime video chat with each other.
The conceit was inspired by a 17-minute short film, "Noah," which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in late 2013. The movie consists almost entirely of the action on a teen's desktop. This is a student-film gimmick, but it transcends the simple idea to become one of the best depictions of what it is like to be on the Internet that I've ever seen.
What's remarkable about this film is that it manages to represent what our finest novelists and filmmakers have not: the drama of the screen world. Many stories now play out entirely inside the 2D abstraction of social networks, but most filmed entertainment has to ignore the Internet because there is nothing telegenic about a text box.
Novels don't do much better. Literature about the Internet doesn't come close to capturing what it feels like to be bouncing between tabs, one-on-one communications with close friends, random encounters with strangers, and all the other strange juxtapositions of Internet. Most novels tend to ignore the way our stream of consciousness interacts with all the other streams entirely. Other works, like Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge, try to create a three-dimensional cyber-reality through which characters move and travel. It's astonishingly difficult to represent the action of the mind on the Internet in text.
Perhaps the only way to represent the Internet is to show someone moving across the screen. Even the somewhat nausea-inducing way of moving and clicking around the screen, zooming and panning at great speed, mimics the disorientation that being immersed in all these overlapping matrices of information can bring.