You know how people nowadays, when traveling especially, need to take a picture of everything just to be sure they’ve experienced it? Maybe they actually look at all those pictures. Or some of them. But isn’t the driving force much more that sneaking feeling at the moment of capture, a dizziness with experience that makes one want to plant it solidly in the wet-but-drying concrete of a digital camera, consequence-free, yet consequence-ridden?
I remember, especially, going to see the Mayan pyramids in Guatemala and Mexico almost four years ago. At the time I still made a point of not carrying a camera and drawing pictures whenever I saw something I really needed to experience. The extra time it took to draw provided the opportunity to sit there and watch how people encountered these un-encounter-able, incomprehensible ancient things. Click, then keep on walking. It is finished, as Jesus once said. The great event, captured in a little box, freeing the person to move on to the next one. But with all this great power of capturing we have, in brilliant color, 10 megapixels of detail, and optional video, is the eroding ontology of the unaided senses. The things seen, heard, and felt without the camera become less real, less sure. Right?
Certainly, praised be Twitter. Compared to the camera, it has got almost zero bandwith to show for itself. Yet still, with 140 lines of text, it has the power to define an ontology—a theory of being—all its own.
Is something real if it hasn’t been put on Twitter? It sounds like a crazy question, but after only a few weeks tweeting I have caught myself, in the thrall of experience, feeling the urge to tweet it. The moment was too much on its own. It would build something, inside my skin, that I didn’t know what to do with except broadcast. Is this merely the urge to self-expression, something as ancient as the ancients? Or something new and frenetic, something twitchy and pathetic?
Twitter and its 140 lines are a visceral (or anti-visceral) reminder that we cling to these technological prosthetics of experience not because they make experience richer but because they make it more manageable. They reduce the bandwidth, even while increasing the traffic. How many times, as the years go by, I have felt the need to repeat this conservative, cranky passage to myself! The god Thamus, as reported by Socrates, as reported by Plato in Phaedrus 274C-275B, on the god Thoth’s invention of writing:
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.
Okay, you’ve read your Socrates, now you can watch the filmstrip. It’s funny.