Tuesday, June 11, 2013

To see and be seen

“I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”

(Edward Snowden)

“We must be prepared to find, therefore, that the patient yields to the compulsion to repeat, which now replaces the impulsion to remember.”

(Sigmund Freud)

     Last Thursday, my beautiful wife performed in a tap dance recital at our local community center, with a large crowd of supportive friends and family in attendance. Before the recital, it was agreed that I would make a video recording of the evening. Since we have a daughter who is in third grade, I’m no stranger to the documentary possibilities of modern consumer grade video technology—the sheer volume of data you can record, how easily you can edit it, how easily you can store and share it.
     All of that power comes with a cost, though. Sometimes when I find myself behind the camera at an event or outing, I have to resist a nagging thought: am I really experiencing the thing I am filming? We have one of those cameras with a three-inch LCD monitor, so you can see what is being recorded without having to shove your eye up against the viewfinder. It’s a neat feature, but it creates the false impression that you can actually step back from the device, and just enjoy the experience as any other audience member would. In practice, the moment you step back from the device is the moment your wife dances out of the frame. So long as the camera is in your hand, and you have something to film, and you take that mission seriously, you are trapped in the role of “camera operator”—beholden to the tiny screen, and its rendering of the machine’s real-time copy of the performance. You may became so wrapped up in that puny facsimile that when the thing you are filming is over, you feel as though you missed it—even though you had been there, front and center, the whole time.
     I certainly felt that way on Thursday—thrilled by the dance but unsettled by the technology. This even though I knew full well that ultimately there was no ideal audience experience that looking at the LCD screen could have been unfavorably compared to. What would it have meant for me to “really” experience the dancers’ dance? Let’s say I had imposed upon a friend to film it for us, or decided to purchase the DVD that the arts center staff would be making. That would have freed me to focus my own eyes directly on the dancers—but I would still be in my uncomfortable seat, in a hot auditorium, fielding whispered questions from my nine-year-old, and trying not to accidentally kick over the cup of coffee that was on the floor beneath my chair. And suppose for the sake of argument that I could have escaped all of those distractions? The most perfect possible experience of the dance would still be the copy that my brain wanted to show me, only made up of firing neurotransmitters rather than liquid crystals.
     Perhaps the problem—the unsettling feeling—isn’t the elusiveness of authentic experience, but the mania for documentation. Or perhaps the two are related—maybe a deep, immitigable fear of missing the “real thing” leads us to want to use the new tools at our disposal to make as many copies as we can, in a vain attempt to know a thing from every possible angle. Maybe it no longer matters which angle is best.
     So is that unsettling, or beautiful? To sit in that dance recital audience was to see the old idea of integrated reality exploded into a thousand reference points. From the back row you could direct your attention to the stage, or to any of the other LCD screens on any of the other cameras being anxiously thrust into the air alongside mine. One person in the front row even had a Skype feed going, streaming the show to an elderly relative. In that sea of bobbing, glowing devices, somehow we had all been compelled to follow the same unspoken fiat: copy everything. Were we looking into the future?

No comments: