John's World: Here's Looking at You, Kid

March 23, 2012 07:01 PM

Thanks to the outlandishly colorful Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose birthday on Jan. 25 always provokes considerable overconsumption of Scotch whiskey and the indescribable Highland delicacy of haggis (which tastes as good as it sounds), we have a ready-made phrase for a technological phenomenon that appalls almost daily: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!" (It is comforting to learn that my new iPhone can’t understand the Scottish brand of English either.)

Well, Bobby, we’ve got the power now. There is a good chance way too much of your life is recorded on video. And it is not pretty.

Even for the very attractive (I can only imagine), ever more precise video imaging provides new and detailed evidence that mangles our comfortable delusions about our personal appearance. What was once an amusing embarrassment is now a persistent ego deflator posted on the Internet for the entire world to see.

No doubt early man took a long time to equate his reflection in still water with himself, because he could have imagined just about any outward appearance. Maybe that ugly face looking back at him was really a cruel distortion by watery demons, not unlike a modern political attack ad.

Likewise, when mirrors were first devised it was possible to fault the medium for the message. But our anxiety began to mount on the off chance it was an accurate reflection.

I am sure there was equivalent horror when photographs replaced painted portraits. After all, painters had a keen sense of who was paying for the portrait, and of his or her self-opinion. They also had a clear idea of what passed for "hot" back in that particular day, although a visit to the museum often has moderns like me wondering what they were smoking to come up with those standards of "smokin’."

Consequently, there must have been some stunned silences as 19th-century consumers were handed their first photographs. And they doubtless expressed the same objections we do. "Cameras hate me," we calmly rationalize. By some scientific miracle, our photons don’t hit the lens quite like others’, through no fault of our own.

Fast forward. Technological leaps have only worsened this shock. Some of us still live in dread of old home movies being trotted out at anniversaries or birthdays. It is an accepted fact that the presence of a home-movie camera could reduce the intelligence of all within range by 60% to 70%, resulting in seemingly incontrovertible proof that Grandpa spent most of his youth in a mildly deranged state.

The process of adding motion to still photos also shredded another conceit: We’re not quite as graceful, quick, agile or smooth as we imagine ourselves to be. This revelation is unavoidable when watching home movies of amateur athletics or (shudder!) dancing. We don’t soar over our opponents so much as detour around them. Our golf swing looks better on the Wii. As for busting moves on the dance floor, we look more like our bodies are engaged in a civil war with several opposing factions.

The capture-it-for-all-time instinct evolved along with technology. Soon, respectable parenting required that a bulky video camera be lugged dutifully to everything from track meets to proms. There is an entire generation of parents with virtually no three-dimensional visual memories of their offspring. They instead possess closets full of unlabeled but oddly precious recordings of ballgames they watched through a viewfinder.

Even if you have wisely chosen to stay out of the limelight, there is scant background to fade into anymore. Between security cameras, ubiquitous smartphone users and surreptitious surveillance by everyone from Google to the weird neighbor with all the bumper stickers, the cameras are
always rolling. And thanks to ever-cheaper storage devices, the video files of an entire life could fit inside a Chipotle burrito.

The latest so-called technological improvement is, of course, the high-definition image. This is a horrifying development for those who find themselves in front of a camera, and adding it to the arsenal of home video-graphers is like handing out spray paint at a fraternity party—there’s not much upside.

The bad news could get worse. Can you say "3-D"? Sadly, as we work harder to make permanent and accurate that which should be fleeting and hazy, we can no longer be saved by the divine gift of faulty memory.

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