In House of Cards, Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a master manipulator. No movement is wasted as he and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) stack the tall but fragile reality their show is named after.
But when you look at this supercut of House of Cards characters touching their tablets and phones, called Touching Software by new media artist Ben Grosser, you are left with a strange taste in your mouth. Is Francis using all these apps on tablets and cell phones to manipulate his world, or are those cell phones and tablets manipulating him?
“My specific inspiration . . . came from becoming self-aware of just how delicate my own manipulations of trackpads and touch screens had become. With all of the gestural support these interfaces now support, it seemed almost as if my hands were engaged in a dance with the computer,” says Grosser. He became so interested that he began filming his own hand using the trackpad on his laptop. “I was amazed at how soft and intimate these movements were,” Grosser continues. “That got me asking questions about how and why my hands were moving these ways, focused on who or what was directing these movements. In other words, how are the designs of software changing not just how we move, but when and why?”
To Grosser–an artist who in the past has forced computers to watch famous movies–the implication of the topic isn’t just about exploring the intersection of technology and culture, it’s something more–it’s understanding technology as culture. An iPhone with the Facebook app loaded will make you do things that, in any other reality, you’d never do.
And so he began to watch TV through this critical lens, observing as characters touched the screens around them. Grosser’s experience binge watching House of Cards (for the second time!) stuck out in particular. “It wasn’t until this moment that I started to think more specifically about how much work these actors were doing to bring the tech into the story, and thus how much control software was having over the actor’s performances,” says Grosser. “I thought watching the actors integrate these movements into their craft would serve as a useful vehicle for observing not only how we manipulate software through movement, but also how software, in return, manipulates us.”
So Grosser’s studio assistant spent a few weeks logging House of Cards, then Grosser cut all of that into the video you see here. If the number of examples Grosser was able to collect from the series seems absurd, know that an earlier cut was roughly twice the length. There’s a lot of material left on the cutting-room floor, which is a haunting thought unto itself: technology is so ubiquitous that it’s shaping and driving the narrative of the most lauded political drama of our time–literally, on a screen on the screen.
“I’m left thinking about how such software stories are positively contributing to Silicon Valley’s overarching narrative of technology as neutral, as a simple facilitator of human connection,” says Grosser. “As someone who questions that narrative, I mean for this project to encourage critical observation of software’s role in contemporary culture.”
[All Images: via Benjamin Grosser]