Video/ Re:humanities: The Images Seduce

“However, the story soon turns dark. The images seduce. They are richer and more compelling than the real life around them. [Director Wim] Wenders’s characters fall in love with their dreams, become addicted to them. People wander about with blankets over their heads the better to see the monitors from which they cannot bear to be parted. They are imprisoned by the screens, imprisoned by the keys to their past that the screens seem to hold.”

Reading Digital Culture, p 249

I’ve been thinking about the above excerpt from Sherry Turkle’s “Who Am We?” a fair amount since our last class. We talked at length about the value (or futility) of establishing a YouTube canon and how events like the YouTube Play Biennial are indicative of a larger phenomenon, namely the supplanting of traditional channels of fame by the more populist digital and social channels.

I mentioned that YouTube’s great innovative strength was its staggering capacity for documentation: every minute, 35 hours of new video stream their way onto the site. Quite literally, humanity is crowdsourcing an intangible codex of the human experience; we’re slowly amassing every permutation and combination of recordable events that can occur in a human lifetime. This is essentially the way that many viral hits build allure: they are humorous or engaging moments once entirely transient–like the daily news– but now “preserved” in a digital archive.

Stemming from these thoughts about our pursuit to document everything, my question is essentially whether we have subtly transformed into a society facing the mirror problem of the one in Wenders’s film (synopsis). With the rise of hyper-intuitive portable video, every moment is now worthy of documentation, and that fundamentally changes how we operate in reality. Our experiences start assembling themselves into a spectrum of digital value: the allure of “authoring” the next viral hit goads everyone with a camera lens and a 3G connection to capture more of reality in a pixelated shadowbox. We go forth and document, frenetically ensnaring an expanding list of increasingly trivial moments.

Our addiction, then, is not motivated by the hope that dredging the subconscious self will manifest some hidden or repressed truth about humanity, but instead seems driven by the fear of transience: without a record, how will we recall the fantastic events that pepper our lives? When I die, will my importance to society at large be my upload history? My tweets? Additionally, there may be some innate desire to misrepresent our lives: if someone can score one viral hit, can we be led to think that individual’s existence is filled with moments worthy of capture?

TL;DR: The populism of social media is allowing people to become famous not by traditional means like creating new things or participating in a fictional reality, but instead by capturing increasing amounts of the current reality. This poses some interesting questions about how we interact with the analog world.

Discussion Points: 11-10-10

1. Boorstin says that we, “live in a world where fantasy is more real than reality,” (37), that we create simulations of experiences because we can’t experience them ourselves, then we have the audacity to believe that our simulations are superior to the actual experiences. How would Boorstin approach the advent of the internet? Can the internet, in some way, serve as a tool to “disillusion ourselves,” (6) by gaining access to the knowledge that original experiences are superior to the simulations of them that we create?

2. Is there a way to reconcile the difference between “man-made and God-made events,” (11) or, “celebrities” and “heroes” (61)? In other words, can we remove the artificial fervor that people add to events and people (which make them pseudo-events or celebrities) and understand them on the basis of their actual weight? For instance, can we construct a scale that accurately places Alexander the Great, John Milton, Lady Gaga, and LonelyGirl15 in order of their actual impact on the world? Or has the internet (and other media) already broken the scale, such that “actual impact” has become a completely relative term?

3. Setting aside the distinction between authenticity and fabrication, Boorstin claims that, “the celebrity is created by the media,” (61). Yet, on Youtube, millions of people have viewed web-cam videos made by some guy/girl in his/her room, and on Twitter, we can see topics that are trending based on what users think is newsworthy. To what extent have new media taken the mechanisms of “old” media (journalists, news-anchors, advertisers, writers, producers, etc.) out of this equation for making a celebrity? To what extent are these mechanisms still present/necessary to elevate news and people to fame?

4. Laurel talks about how–through computers–we can interact within, “worlds in which we can extent, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act,” (113). In what ways has the internet become an extension of our imagination as, “laboratory of the spirit,” (112)?

5. How can we reconcile Laurel’s world-view with Boorstin’s?