Tuesday, May 24, 2011

From There to Here

While listening to RadioLab's streaming audio productions, I came across a piece about a researcher who was studying how people's abilities to recollect memories are affected by them having made a conscious effort at writing down the details of their observations.

His initial results showed that test subjects who wrote down descriptions of things they'd just observed were over 30% less likely to recall the details at a later date, as compared to a control group who made no special effort at initially recording such minute detail.

These results were counter-intuitive to what one might expect, in that the writing down of detailed descriptions would be expected to promote one's recollection, rather than diminish it.

Equally unexpected was that subsequent attempts at exactly recreating the conditions of the experiment, using new test subjects, produced a continually diminishing difference between both groups, leading to the conclusion that, somehow, foreknowledge of previous test results by the experimenters was able to affect subsequent outcomes.

I became interested in this story for two reasons. First, that therein could potentially be proof that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle – observations of events at the quantum level affecting the outcome – operates at macro scales, able to influence the complex psychology between experimenter and test subject; and second, the possibility of the writing process affecting one's memory and recollection of detailed information over time.

I've often wondered, having watched many documentary films, at the effect the process of documentary film-making has on its subjects, whether any documentary work can ever be considered truly objective.

I am reminded of the street photography of Bruce Gilden, who employs a Leica film camera and off-camera flash to (essentially) assault his subjects, faces frozen aghast amidst startled reactions of horror. This is perhaps the most extreme example of the observer affecting the behavior of the observed, the resulting outcome being a document of the photographer encountering his prey in mid-grasp, the hunter vanquishing the hunted.

Could it be that clandestine observation – the working methods of both the street photographer and the state security apparatus – have the same unintended consequence? I am reminded of the aftermath of September 11, 2001, wherein arose an entirely new dimension of governmental surveillance, and also the phenomenon of increased public outcry against street photographers. Both phenomena continue unabated to this day.

Similar in concept to Kevin Kelly's Technium (technology becoming self-aware) is the notion that our self-introspective culture has itself become self-aware. What are the consequences of a self-aware culture? Does Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty still apply? And, if so then, how?

A further example, closer in experience to many readers of this blog, might be of value. I've noticed within the Typosphere – the aggregate of those who blog about manual typewriters – this tendency to focus the efforts of their writing on the process of typing, and typewriter collecting, rather than the historic usage mode of typewriters being that one's choice of writing tool was transparent to the process of writing. Could it be that technologies, once obsoleted, become rediscovered as self-referential cultural artifacts? If touch-screen devices become ubiquitous, will we apply the same nostalgic fascination that we currently exhibit with typewriters to early 1990's PC mice, for instance?

This leads to the subject of instant photography, what were once called Polaroids, but now, with the demise of Polaroid film (the Impossible Project's efforts at revival notwithstanding), we are left with the cultural remnants, vestigial artifacts, of the Polaroid aesthetic, such as the Hipstamatic app for the iPhone, and Fuji's Instax instant film cameras, which are often used in attempts at recreating what has now been enculturated as the Polaroid “look.” Polaroids were, in their prime, used by real estate agents, accident investigators and party-goers during get-togethers (and also, I suspect, for the creation of private pornography). Now, iPhone-generated Hipstamatic images, and Fuji Instax snaps, seem to be commonly used to recreate the visual aesthetic of a time past, when such instant prints were commonplace. The Polaroid “look” is now culturally self-referential; in actual practice, real estate agents, accident investigators and party-goers are more apt to use a digital camera, even though Fuji Instax cameras and film are readily available on Amazon and at Urban Outfitters (and, relatedly, electronic typewriters are still available at Staples stores).

I've noticed this phenomenon, on Rangefinder Forum and APUG, of diehard film users taking offense at young people (“hipsters”) with Holga film cameras. I suspect the reason for the offense is that these modern toy plastic cameras are culturally self-referential to a time when film photography was ubiquitous, implying that, in keeping film use alive, they simultaneously signify its demise, like driving a fully restored classic car brings both admiration for its classic design and a reminder that “they don't make 'em like that anymore.” In the economics of a flailing film industry, one would think diehard film users would welcome with open arms anyone willing to take up the cause and keep demand for such products alive.

As popular culture becomes more self-aware, I suspect we will see the circle of technology spiraling ever-faster, the lead time between new technology and obsolescence ever shortening, until technology is born pre-obsoleted, and thus already self-referential, able to evoke a sense of the cutting-edge new while simultaneously reflecting attributes of a romantic past that never was – another tool for marketers to exploit. For instance, I can imagine an app for the iPad, called “iPad,” that would simulate, on the iPad's screen, the actions of an iPad, the mere act of finger-swipe and touch-screen gesture existing for no other reason than to evoke the iPad's fictitious pedigree (as of this writing, the devices have only been on the market a little over one year).

Getting back to that RadioLab piece, as a self-referential culture documents itself in ever-tightening spirals of minutiae, does it lose the very memory of itself? What happens when the spiral collapses in upon itself completely? Do we collectively forget, en masse, how we got from there to here?


Blogger Rob Bowker said...

Loads to think about there Joe, thanks for expressing it. And thanks for the Bruce Gilden reminder - now I want to spend tomorrow in town taking street portraits!

5:38 PM  
Blogger Strikethru said...

Agree with Rob, very thought provoking post and about a dozen things to comment on. Watched the Bruce Gilden video, and did a little reading on street photography, not something I know much about. Interesting and disturbing. Often when watching documentary films I share your feeling that they are inauthentic just by virtue of what they are.

10:12 PM  

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