January 19th, 2008
Essay by C. Way – Copyright © 2008 SnailCrow.com
The paintbrush shown in the above video is a remarkable piece of technology. It’s eerie but breathtaking to watch a human being capture complex, varied patches of color, texture and motion and reproduce it all with a flick of the wrist.
At the same time this is essentially just another sampling technology, taking the camera to its next logical evolutionary stage: not only snap the world out of context, but repurpose it in real-time.
As sampling technology then, it has the same potential to be used to honor its medium (I think of Edgar Varese’s musical compositions, or some of the soundscapes in a Public Enemy song) or debase it (contemporary pop which lifts entire melodies and motifs from older artists, slaps on a new lyric and calls it a new composition). It all depends on who handles the technology.
Still, at the risk of seeming all Ludditish, all I see are people creating more distance (or having distance inserted) between themselves and life through technology like this. I think of all the concerts and live music I’ve been to in recent years where, more and more, the audience is content to view everything through a lens, snapping away, only occasionally putting aside the camera to experience the event unmediated.
Or botanical gardens I’ll go to where people rush up to a bonsai tree, or orchid, or kiku flower, snap a few strained photos and hurry off to the next shot, never pausing to experience the subject in its immediacy, apart from the impulse to contain and preserve — and sample.
People are being conditioned to relate to the world outside of them as opportunities first & foremost for sampling and capture, whether by camera or this new LED-paintbrush, & not as opportunities for real, developed, fully-rounded experience.
Many will answer a concern like mine with: “Well, um, doesn’t it amount to the same thing?”
No. Worlds apart. The psychologies of experience involved are utterly different. To use the example above, let’s take the case of two different botanical gardens visitors. The first (we’ll call him Dan) strolls through aisles of blossoms, smelling their fragrances, reacting to their texture, color & form spontaneously & with a mixture of passivity and active engagement.
And the second, whom we’ve already met, we’ll call Rich. Rich is ready with camera even as he walks toward an orchid, before he’s even fully registered it, & sees the garden as one big photo op.
The mindsets are so night and day that it’s worth it to expand on the differences a bit. For Dan, the external world is known and felt on its own terms, reacted to and interacted with as he is inspired. Dan is among nature as if with a partner, engaged as he would be with a human in conversation, with a mixture of give and take. He stops and smells here, walks toward the Foxgloves over there, lets himself be stopped by the sudden sight of an unexpected passionflower over by his feet.
For Rich, the external world is a subject first and foremost. An opportunity for capture, recording, processing and dismissal. Rich is pleased to have preserved for posterity some image of the Subject. If he can accomplish this, his job is done.
But unlike Rich, Dan isn’t thinking about the future, or about capturing anything — Dan relates to the external world in the absolute present, naturally, in a spirit of play and calm, without an urge to control and contain. He perceives the garden with a combination of receptivity (letting all sensation wash over him, not hunting for something photogenic) and focus (when something beautiful suddenly strikes his fancy he draws nearer and takes pleasure in it).
Granted, Dan & Rich are, for argument’s sake, pretty extreme examples. Many of us share traits from both. And I’m not saying photography is an inherently bad technology — its skillful use has obviously enriched human experience. I’m just saying that the runaway dependence on technology like the camera, like audio samplers, like the digital paintbrush, has created its own Sampler psychology that has consequences.
I don’ t know about you, but more and more I’m seeing Rich in Aquariums, gardens, music shows, museums. And not only is it annoying, sometimes it feels downright alien. I’ll feel like I’m in the wrong country or something, watching everyone take in the event in this acquisitive, mediated way. I’ll start to feel almost self-conscious that I’m not also alongside them all, fishing for that perfect sightline, readying my camera, etc.
So what else is involved in the Sampler mindset? I think so much of what Rich does is a function of power and convenience. For Rich, it’s gratifying to feel in control, in a direct, assertive way, capturing and sampling the external world as he chooses, when and how he wants it, handling nature, ordering it, framing it, experiencing it on his terms. And as for the convenience factor — It’s easier & less messy to cut and paste the world in sampled particulars than handle it directly. AND you have the seductive illusion of having experienced reality outside yourself (when really, you haven’t). Mediated reality is always an easier sell.
So what’s the cost here?
It’s pretty simple. I believe sampler culture, when unexamined and unmoderated, impoverishes our experience of the world around us over time. We become desensitized Rich’s, rushing around the external world, hunting sounds, textures, colors, humans, animals, and nature as Subjects for categorization, capture and sampling; we imagine our lives made easier when in fact only anxiety comes from the illusion that we can and should control & contain the world around us through this endless process of point and click (be it lens, Digi-paintbrush, handheld audio/song recorder, etc).
There is always a price to be paid for convenience in the modern world. It’s not always as obvious or as blunt as toxic fallout from cheaply made, sweatshopped chinese toys. Or stomach cancer from having your food made a little faster a few days a week. Around these modern ills, we can rally and say: we might want to start to change our behavior.
But sometimes the price, the consequence isn’t so salient. Sometimes it’s slower, more subtle, an erosion of the spirit and mind that’s much more difficult to detect — but just as much of a human pollution.