As I post this, I’m still on vacation in the Faroe Islands, where I’ve attended the wedding of a dear friend’s daughter. It was a traditional ceremony, blending ancient and new traditions. For instance, ancient Faroese and Danish songs were sung during the wedding reception, which also featured PowerPoint slideshows of photos and Quicktime videos depicting the bachelor and bachelorette parties. Digital cameras were everywhere, of course.
I’ve thought for many months how digital technology has changed the way we experience the world. We like to think that we craft our tools to serve us, but the limitations of these tools cannot help but change us as well, in the same way that our human eyes see a different spectrum of light than, say, the puffins I photographed the other day on the steep Faroese cliffs.
One example of this profound change is electricity, which is quite obvious. The other is more subtle, and involves digital photography.
Electric Light: The Other Midnight Sun
Faroese weddings go on for two solid days. The first day, which included what Americans would call the reception, had three distinct meals (the formal dinner, the serving of cakes, and an early-morning soup course). The first meal was only just ending at 11 PM, which didn’t seem so late, since the sun was only just behind the horizon. What’s more, being so close to the Arctic Circle, the sun didn’t stay away for long. As it began to reemerge, at 4 AM, we were still dancing to a band that played exclusively American — and British Invasion — rock songs.
I was told that the wedding dancing of a few hundred years ago would have included a traditional Faroese dance that takes at least an hour to complete (danced, as it is, to a song with 300+ verses). Back then oil lamplight would have illuminted the steps. This certainly would have dampened some of the more boiserous aspects of the event!
So much about us has changed because of technology’s “electric sun.”
In Maury Klein’s The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America, I recently read of the pivitol day in September of 1882, when Thomas Edison, the man known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” illuminated the first 400 electric lights installed in New York City.
What struck me about his description is the muted reaction of New York Times reporters. Keep in mind that daily news reporting is driven by extremely tight press deadlines. Yet before the electric light, there was much that could be forgiven. A reporter could more easily file stories developed over weeks — and in the process, get more sleep.
Edison’s “lighting of New York” included 27 electric lamps in the Times editorial rooms. And so, you may wonder, what was the account of this sudden conquest over darkness from the reporters of “The Grey Lady?” Well, the column on Page 8 (yes, 8!) of the next day’s paper said it was, “In every way satisfactory.”
Klein made the obvious point that the paper, “never fully grasped its significance.” Only hindsight could show these reporters that their careers were to be changed forever. And also their family life. The electric light would extend both wedding festivities and work responsibilities — allowing for a day that need never fade into darkness.
Life In A Digital Viewfinder
In my travels these two weeks I’ve visited some extraordinary families (and I have one more to meet, in Belgium, before returning to the States). On the walls of homes in Milan, Berlin, Copenhagen — and now Torshavn, Faroe Islands — I’ve admired photos of relatives that sometimes go back to the very first silver plate photographs of the mid-1800’s. These photos are sometimes right next to the latest generation’s photos. Having observed at the same time some very ancient Eurpoean traditions, attitudes and mannerisms, I have to again posit that the medium has changed us as surely as we have changed the medium.
It was two years ago, when I saw this pose depicted in a still from a movie (illustrated below), that I first realized that the portability and disposability of digital camera technology actually created a new type of romantic embrace.
Compare the stock-still (and emotion-free) poses of couples and families in the tintypes of antiquity with this commonplace example of PDA (public display of affection), and you have to wonder if our cameras own us as much as we do them.
Traditional values — superceding romantic love with love of family, and narcissism with selflessness — may have been made quaint as much by our evolving tools as our evolving beliefs.
Am I onto something? Or have I simply been eating too much wedding day halibut salad and whale blubber?
2 Replies to “A look through the viewfinder reminds us that technology changes us irreversibly”
“The things you own end up owning you”
– Tyler Durden, Fight Club
… Though your post is a slightly different way of thinking about this concept.
Thanks, Matt. I like the skewed view at life that the film “Fight Club” provided. Another example of this inverted way of looking at things is in Michael Pollen’s book, “The Botany of Desire.” In its introduction (if I recall), he suggests that agriculture manipulates us as much as we do agriculture.
Example: Grasses are competing with trees for valuable real estate. In this struggle, they become, over time, nourishing to humans (e.g., wheat), in a non-sentient strategy to encourage humans to cut down trees and plant more of them.
As absurd as these notions sound, they help to make the familiar seem new to those patient enough to consider them. And from this fresh prospective, a better understanding of the situation can arise.
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