Tech Has Drained the Reality Out of Our Real Lives

Old tech like disposable cameras inadvertently reinforced the vitality of real life, but modern cameras now create a superior virtual world we don’t feel good enough for

TThey always seemed like enchanted objects to me. The disposable cameras we stuffed into our cheap handbags in the late 1990s and early 2000s were really just empty plastic containers with a lens on one side. And yet, within that sealed box, there occurred a kind of alchemy, all the more miraculous for being mechanical, that gave us the power to freeze time. We could slice slivers off the shifting visible world, like doctors performing biopsies of living things, and keep the specimens to be pored over whenever we liked.

Through cassette tapes and VCRs, our dominion was extended beyond mere shavings of time to whole chunks of it. My sisters and I would record TV programs and films so that we could re-watch them at our leisure. I would crouch over the “play-record” button on my boom box as Tony Fenton — then the star DJ of radio station 2FM where I lived in Ireland — played the latest hits, poised to lay siege to my favorite songs like a huntsman hiding in a bush.

The devices may have been remarkable, but the results we got out of them were decidedly less so. There was a chunk missing from the middle of our bootlegged VCR of True Lies because my sister had forgotten to press the record button again after one of the ad breaks. And despite several attempts made over a few fraught weeks in 1997, I never managed to get the full six-plus minutes of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android. Tony Fenton had a maddening habit not just of chopping the song at both ends, but of bellowing over the parts of it that he did play in tones that were suspiciously American-sounding for a man from the outskirts of Dublin.

Evidence of our amateurishness was everywhere. But it was nowhere more apparent than in the pictures we took with our cheap cameras. And this had deep significance for how we saw ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

The first flush of my photographic enthusiasm was directed at the faces of my friends as we made our breathless tours of the clammy, smoke-wreathed nightclubs of Cork City. Tense standoffs with inscrutable bouncers would give way to scenes of rapture when we all got in. (Most of us were underage.) These tableaux generally featured us bearing alcopops or pints of stale Carlsberg aloft like Olympic torches as we heaved about on the sticky dance floor, pausing occasionally to clutch each other in paroxysms of joy.

Eager to preserve such moments for posterity, I would dig out my little camera, but photographic conditions were never optimal. What with the dimness of the viewfinder, my lack of skill, and the aforementioned pints of Carlsberg, I could never quite tell just what I was photographing. I would simply point the camera in the general direction of whatever was happening and hope for the best.

For most of us, our prior experience of being photographed had largely been limited to those seasonal occasions when we would be instructed by our dads to stand with our siblings beside Christmas trees or in front of billowing tents on the annual summer holiday to Kerry. And even if some of us had nascent theories regarding how to pose for the camera — though I, for one, had none — these ideas were as yet vague and untested.

The inescapable shoddiness of our amateur photographs served an important purpose: Each image told us that the real world was better than the one it depicted.

All of this meant that when the local pharmacist handed the developed photographs back a week or so later, the images would inevitably disappoint. In the prints, we saw ourselves mid-expression, caught off guard. We seemed vulnerable, unsure of ourselves. The flash at close quarters bleached our faces and gave us a startled, frightened look. Our eyes would either be red or half closed. Skin was shiny, tops were sweat-ringed, chins were often double. Retouching was not an option.

When we passed around the newest batch of prints, then, we knew better than to look for the “good” pictures. There never were any. Instead, we would point to the particularly egregious ones and shriek, giving voice to feelings that lay somewhere between hilarity and terror.

But the inescapable shoddiness of our amateur photographs served an important purpose, beyond the obvious one of discouraging narcissism, and it was this: Through its very mediocrity, each image told us that the real world was better than the one it depicted. We were made aware of the richness, the vividness, the sheer reality of our actual lives simply in being shown that our virtual lives were wan and insubstantial. Each of our badly framed, overexposed pictures served as an incentive to seek out the real world. Similarly, the fragmentary bootleg was a reason to go to the video store or, better still, to the cinema; the disappointing tape-recording likewise sent us in search of the CD and the live show.

BBut things are different now. Take film and music. The ready availability of high-quality movies and music through streaming services means there’s no need to make — nor even to have — our own copies. And the distinction between copy and original seems outmoded anyway, given the demise of film and CDs. Though you might be able to download a “copy” of the latest Kanye album, wondering where to find the original would be like asking where they keep the genuine L train.

Even if there’s no longer any sense in looking for an authentic artifact, there at least seems to be an authentic experience on offer at the cinema or at a live gig. But it’s not obvious that you have much reason to go to the cinema if you’ve got a 47-inch high-definition TV in your living room and a cupboard full of microwave popcorn. And we’re less motivated to seek out live music these days too, not just because domestically available recordings are so good, but because the live musical experience itself has changed fundamentally with the rise of smartphones.

It used to be the case that live gigs either were or had a chance of being profoundly exhilarating. You never felt more alive than you did at a good show by your favorite band. This heightened sense of reality involved the sense that everyone present was fervently attending to the same thing: the performance happening on stage. But these days, a significant number of people at any given show will inevitably be paying attention not to the show, but to their own images of the show, on the screens of their smartphones. Any possibility of joint attention evaporates since everyone is looking at different things — he’s looking at his image, she’s looking at her image, he’s adding to his Instagram stories, she’s presenting her own video livestream of the show for her Facebook friends. And the lack of joint attention means there’s no possibility of the heightened sense of reality establishing itself, either. You find yourself wondering why you bothered coming out at all.

There is a sense in which copy and original have swapped places where live music is concerned. The videos and photographs of the gig — the copies, in other words — have taken on the character of the original: These are the things that feel real (to the ones posting them on social media, at least). Meanwhile, the gig itself — the original — takes on the vague, spectral character of a copy. We find ourselves trapped in a closed loop of images with no possibility of escape to something that not only is real, but feels real, too.

When a photo gets “likes,” we enjoy a heightened sense of our own reality — but the self felt as real is, paradoxically, the virtual one that lives in the picture rather than the actual person that lives in the world.

But if the experience of live music feels less satisfying in the age of smartphones, the opposite is true of the pictures that smartphones enable us to take. The capacity to make innumerable attempts at a “good photo” without penalty means we’re no longer forced to live with the duds. Instant retouching eliminates blemishes and brightens color palettes. The world appears more vivid, with all the unappealing bits happily excised. And where once our photographs showed us as vulnerable and startled, they now show us versions of ourselves that are unruffled, assured, ready for anything.

It isn’t just that our virtual worlds and lives look better than our actual worlds and lives, though they typically do. They often seem more real, too. This is because the virtual world seems more orderly, less confused than the actual world. It makes more sense. The serene selves we recognize in our photographs, endowed with purpose and direction by the pseudo-narratives of social media timelines, seem more truly us than the fretful, rudderless souls we feel ourselves to be nowadays. And when a photo gets “likes,” and we feel ourselves to be the objects of joint attention, we enjoy a heightened sense of our own reality — but the self felt as real is, paradoxically, the virtual one that lives in the picture rather than the actual person that lives in the world.

Our amateur photographs used to push us back toward the real world. Now, however, they pull us away from it.

For every personal gadget that becomes obsolete, a network of use and meaning vanishes along with it. But the world that disappears with the demise of cassette tapes, VCRs, and disposable cameras isn’t just a great swath of second-rate content.

The lost world is, quite simply, the actual world itself, toward which we are no longer pointed by the content of our homemade images. And since we are, in actual fact, messy and chaotic flesh-and-blood beings rather than sleek virtual façades, the world sliding out of view is the only one in which we have a decent chance of feeling at home.

Philosophy, music, and everything in between.

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