Don’t get me wrong: I think technology is incredible.
Just this morning, I listened to a compelling story on NPR about the video captured by passersby who witnessed the murder of Oscar Grant, the 22 year old man killed by an Oakland transit policeman in early January.
Passengers on the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) pulled out cell phones and video cameras, capturing the chain of events leading to Grant’s death. The indisputable details rendered by these digital images stand in stark contrast to the dubious defense being forwarded by the officer. Those who captured these images uploaded them to the Internet, creating a body of evidence that, while public and extremely controversial, is likely to play a critical role in the process of justice-seeking.
I also think about the person with a camera phone who captured the first image of the US Airways flight that landed on the Hudson River a few weeks ago, establishing the trajectory of the visual narrative of the emergency landing, documenting rescue efforts before any conventional media arrived on the scene.
These are just two examples of the ways in which technology is shaping everything around us: accidents and crimes, justice and injustice, even the very stories we tell about what happens to us and to others.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, more.
In fact, I think that we’ve only just begun to tap into the power of technology as a means of human connection and communication, and we have a long, exciting, promising way to go.
There are times–and they are increasing in frequency–when I find myself wondering if we can put down the cameras, the phones, and the video cameras, and simply be where we are and experience the moment.
The thought first came to me at the inauguration. I didn’t carry a camera or anything else; wary of security and aware of my own physical capacity to hold lots of gear in the cold for hours at a time, I decided to leave it all behind and just be in the moment.
Despite the flashes of regret I felt as I watched other people snapping photos of this inarguably historic moment, two weeks later, I realize I don’t rue my decision at all. In fact, I was only more sure that the decision was right for me when I asked one of the adults in the tour group I was leading, “What did you think of President Obama’s speech?” “Oh, I didn’t really hear it,” he told me as he fiddled with his tripod. “You know, I was too busy taking pictures.”
The relative affordability of cameras, cell phones, and video cameras has expanded the documentarian impulse to an immense group of people. Attend any event of significance and you’ll find dozens of folks with Canon digital cameras, a set of lenses, and an iphone. Often, I’ll be among them. I own all of this gear (except the iphone), and then some, and I use it to eagerly capture as many moments as possible.
Sometimes, though, I feel the conflict of not really having been in that moment myself.
In her tightly constructed essay, “Photography: A Little Summa,” Susan Sontag argued that photography–and one can extend photography’s embrace to include visual and auditory documentation of any sort, I think– has become an “enterprise of notation.” It consumes us with the desire to capture something, like the hobby entomologist pinning his specimen to a board. It preoccupies us so that we are less capable–even, as Sontag argues, incapable–of feeling and acting.
Which brings me back to Oscar Grant.
What was going on behind the camera? Outside the frame? Was anyone holding a phone or a camera actually concerned about what was happening to the man lying face down on the platform as one officer punched him in the face, apparently unprovoked, and another shot him in the back, killing Grant? Or were they thinking, “This will be great for YouTube!”?
Watching some of the footage, it’s clear there was a critical mass of civilians “documenting” the incident. Did any of them feel empowered or impassioned about intervening, about doing something other than holding a camera phone in the air and recording Grant’s last breath? As of this writing, more than 700 (and closer to 800) videos have been uploaded to YouTube about the shooting (though some, it must be noted, are compilation videos and videos of newscasts about the incident). Some of these videos have been viewed more than 200,000 times. But what does the video do besides leave the viewer with a sense of helplessness and rage? Although these videos are likely to become–have, in fact, already become–important influences in the outcome of the criminal case brought against the officer, the question becomes: Is that enough? What if some of the people had put away the phones and cameras and really been there, had really been witnesses, in the true sense of the word?
It’s an extreme case, to be sure, but I don’t think we should let the lesson be lost upon us (and really, I’m writing this more for myself than for anyone else): Sometimes we need to just show up and be present. Sometimes, we just need to live experiences, instead of trying to document our way through them.