Who's Watching the Watchers?
Posterity is going to have its work cut out for it.
On a trip to Honolulu last month, we watched a young Japanese tourist take a photo of the sidewalk. At first we thought she must have been trying to snap a picture of some friend who'd stepped out of the frame at the last second, but, no, it was definitely the sidewalk.
All that was missing was for another tourist to shoot a photo of the young woman photographing the sidewalk, creating one of those infinite-regression mirror things that I'm pretty sure scientists have shown would open a wormhole to Proxima Centuri.
But don't worry: This isn't going to be another riff on how Japanese tourists obsessively take photos of everything (although last year we did see one Japanese man photographing his breakfast bowl of miso soup).
Rather, it's about a revelation I had while watching this particular slice of time and space get recorded for posterity. We live, I realized, in the most thoroughly documented era in human history.
Millennia ago, only the most memorable mammoth hunts got immortalized by a painting on the cave wall. Long before the invention of the blog, both the momentous and the mundane events in human history went mostly unrecorded. ("Urgh invent fire today. Wife mend rip in favorite mammoth-skin outfit. Tomorrow, work on wheel project, dig new potty pit.")
Once humans learned how to stretch canvas and figured out that whole perspective thing, a few rich guys got their pictures painted. Mostly, though, early painters spent their creative energy not on recording their own era, but on painting lavishly prettied-up renditions of Biblical times. OK, so we know how you folks imagined life in the first century — pretty much like "Beverly Hills 90210," only with tunics and halos — but how about a few more pictures of the proverbial man on the street in your own time?
People starting keeping diaries, too. For younger, tech-savvy readers, let me explain this concept: "Diaries" and "journals" were like blogs, except on paper (I know, what an antiquated concept, but remember — dinosaurs still roamed the earth!) and without hyperlinks or JPGs. These early blog-like writings were meant primarily to record one's private thoughts, rather than instantly sharing news of every burp from last night's tacos with the world.
Most common folk, however, were too busy feeding their families, staying warm and avoiding the Inquisition to paint pictures or keep a diary. So vast swaths of human existence Way Back When can only be guessed at. If anyone took the time to paint a picture of a sidewalk in Honolulu or of their buddies doing Jell-O shots at Trader Vic's, those historic images have not survived for the perusal of modern historians.
Even after the invention of the camera, making a photograph was a special occasion, requiring the subjects to hold still and keep those Jell-O shots from quivering for long, motionless minutes. Matthew Brady did not waste many exposures on bowls of miso soup. ("Sorry, President Lincoln, just keep holding that pose! I'll get to you as soon as I'm done photographing my breakfast.")
As a genealogy buff, I treasure the handful of old family photos that have been passed down into my care. Looking at our stiff, formally dressed ancestors, you can tell they expected to be photographed only a handful of times during their lives. Oddly missing from most collections of old family pictures are photos of Great-Grandpa wearing a "Hang Loose" T-shirt and dropping his pants while Great-Uncle Ned makes bunny ears behind his head.
Not even the introduction of the Brownie camera and the notion of "snapshots" made photography as casual and omnipresent as it is today. Pictures still had to be developed, after all, rather than merely downloaded. You might snap one silly image of Uncle Irv jumping into the Travelodge pool at the family reunion, but not 60. And there was no way to Twitter the experience to the entire world, in deathless prose of 140 characters or less: "Too many martinis for Uncle Irv again. Cannonballs in the pool. Aunt Marge flirting w/ bartender to take her mind off it. I hate my family."
The switch from analog to digital made possible today's ubiquitous recording of every twitch of human existence. (And non-human, too — think of all those pet pictures posted on the Internet on sites like "Stupid Stuff Dogs Do" and "Kostumes on Kats.") What's a few more bits and bytes, a zillion electrons or so, if it means the chance to put a photo of a genuine Honolulu sidewalk on your Facebook page?
I remember fretting about how quickly those large (for their time) digital images would fill up the camera's memory card. But now gigabytes are cheap. Our daughter's digital camera holds something like 2,000 pictures — not exactly an incentive to limit yourself to a handful of carefully composed works of art. Hey, honey, shoot a picture of what you're having for breakfast and email it to us!
Then there's video. Gizmos that fit in the palm of your hand can record high-definition video with a fidelity that would make Cecil B. DeMille swoon. (Younger readers — look him up on IMDB.com.) Home movies, once limited like their still-picture kin by the constraints of film and developing costs, no longer need be restricted to christenings, birthdays and similarly precious moments. Heck, why not record every single stupefyingly boring instant of the family reunion? Then you can make Cousin Ernie — who wisely skipped the whole thing to have his gall bladder taken out — view the video as he lies helpless in his hospital bed.
Remember the ordeal of watching other people's vacation slide shows? Now you can endure video of the entire trip to the Grand Canyon, including endless tracking shots from the car window during the drive through the Painted Desert, from the comfort of your own computer. It's like that movie, Little Miss Sunshine, with all the funny parts and irony removed.
But will anyone watch? That's the question that occurred to me as Miss Miso Soup carelessly photographed the Honolulu sidewalk. When the number of digital images exceeds the total available eyeballs on earth, even figuring a butterfly-like attention span for each photo, what's the point of shooting another scene of Mount Rushmore that no one will ever look at? I'm pretty sure that the count of pictures taken since the introduction of the digital camera exceeds the number of photos snapped in all the prior history of the camera. Soon we'll be drowning in pixels.
The same goes for all those incessant scribes putting words on screens about every eyeblink of their existence. What happens when the number of Twitterers exceeds the number of Twitterees reading each 140-character missive? Surely there are already more bloggers than people reading blogs, leaving at least some online outpourings utterly without an audience. For tragic proof, consider the case of the man who shot up a gym in Pittsburgh — after repeatedly blogging about his murderous intentions. Evidently nobody was reading his blog!
I'm convinced we're approaching some sort of tipping point at which the sum total of data recorded about this chunk of the 21st century will exceed the collective ability of humanity to absorb it. Civilization, indeed, may grind to a halt as the energy expended on recording human activity outweighs the energy of actually doing anything. ("Wait, wait! Take a picture of me blogging about you videoing me Twittering — argh! Being sucked into a wormhole! Must. . . post. . . on my. . . Facebook page!")
There's one other possibility, however. I think of all the stuff I have stored on floppy disks (younger readers — consult Wikipedia for definition) in countless boxes tucked away for safekeeping. Here's the thing: I no longer possess a floppy-disk drive. Most new computers don't come with the ability to read this antique storage medium. Unlike cave paintings or diaries, digital data is not universally accessible across the ages.
That may foreshadow the fate of the early 21st century's obsessive recording of ourselves. Some 23rd century archeologist may unearth the boundless evidence of our narcissism and be puzzled and frustrated, rather than overwhelmed.
"These appear to be some sort of data-storage devices," the archeologist might mutter, "but I can't access most of them, and those that I can are in an unknown file format that I can't open. I guess the early 21st century will just remain a mystery. If only our ancestors back in 2009 had left us something about themselves and their world!"
And, with a resigned shrug, the archeologist throws the flash-memory card back on the scrap heap, little imagining the photo of a Honolulu sidewalk he will never see.