Essays & Articles


Chapter 1: I Go to a 6th Grade Play


I went to a sixth grade play. It was a small play, at a small school. Only the sixth grade was involved, so we were in a relatively small auditorium, with approximately 50 folding chairs crammed together on the floor. If there had been only 50 parents present, it would have been crowded. But in addition to the parents, we had the video cameras.

Some parents came with camera alone, but then had to seek an electric outlet to provide power. Some stated that their cameras worked on batteries – fully charged batteries, they smugly declared – and they had no need for electric outlets. Some brought tripods to steady the camera and then had to squeeze themselves and others in order to set it up. One pair of parents came fully equipped with carrying case, tripod, lights, and a long extension cord, bright orange, neatly rolled up on a special carrying reel. Microphones. Tripods. Cameras. Lights. Lights? To bathe the audience or the play?

Whenever I travel I watch with awe and amazement people overloaded with recording devices. It used to be fun to talk of national stereotypes. Travelling Americans with cameras always at their sides, travelling Germans with cameras at their sides, travelling Japanese with cameras always at their eyes. But the fever recognized no national boundaries, and the early stereotypes soon dissolved into near universal behavior. Still cameras, small little pocket-sized, automatic cameras, each with built in, automatic flash. Flash lights popping off here, popping off there. Flashing as people take photographs of dramatic sunsets.

In the old days those of us who were technically sophisticated used to scoff at those who used a flash to illuminate events far in the distance, let alone a flash to illuminate the setting sun. Today the sneers are gone, for the cameras have taken over, and even I, technically literate in film speeds and gamma, f-ratios and exposure indices, find my little portable camera desperately engaging its electronic flash, not only in futile effort to illuminate the sky, but in a counterproductive effort at that, for if it succeeded, it would ruin the photograph.

Ah yes, once upon a time there was an age in which people went to enjoy themselves, unencumbered by technology, with the memory of the event retained within their own heads.

Today we use our artifacts to record the event, and the act of recording then becomes the event. Days later we review the event, peering at the tape, film, video in order to see what we would have seen had we been looking. To show to others so they too can experience what you would have seen had you been looking. Even if they don’t care to experience it, thank you.

Vicarious Experiencing

The technologies for recording events lead to a curious result. Vicarious experience, I call it. Vicarious experience, even for those who were there. In this context, “vicarious” means to experience an event through the eyes (or the recording device) of another. Yet here we have the real experiencer and the vicarious experiencer being the same person, except that the real experiencer didn’t have the original experience because of all the activity involved in recording it for the later, vicarious experience. If you get what I mean. Of course, a vicarious experience is never the same as a real one.

So busy manipulating, pointing, adjusting, framing, balancing, preparing that the activity dominates and the event disappears. The artifact becomes the event.

The flaw becomes apparent when the technology fails, so the person misses both the original experience (because it was transformed into the experience of manipulating the technology) and the playback, when the technological failure means that there is nothing to play back.

A participant in the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York’s expedition to Virginia Beach, Virginia, in March 1970 to view the solar eclipse later wrote in the club newspaper The Eyepiece; “I spent almost the entire time during totality, attempting to load a camera in the dark. My wife was standing near me. She was full of excitement, yelling all sorts of incredibly beautiful things that were supposedly happening up there. At one point, she just yanked me and said, ‘Look, look there’s Venus. THERE IS VENUS!’ and sure enough, when I looked up, there was Venus. But as I looked up I lost the grip on the film spool which was half laced in the sprocket. The thing fell out and rolled off somewhere and I spent practically the rest of totality (of the eclipse) groping for it in the dark.

“I, therefore, came to the conclusion, and it represents a bit of wisdom, gained at great expense and hardship, which I feel compelled to pass on to other enthusiasts, and that is, the best possible way to see an eclipse is simply LOOK AT IT!”

Chapter Note: The description of the frustrated astronomer who missed the solar eclipse while fumbling with his equipment is from Rao�s book Your guide to the great solar eclipse of 1991 (Rao, 1989, pp. 105-6).

I used to travel with camera myself, always careful to record the events, spending what to my fellow travelers must have seemed like hours, finding just the correct vantage point, the correct lighting to capture the moment. I ended up with hundreds of photographic slides, maybe thousands. So many that I no longer had time to organize them, to arrange them – no time even to look at them. I discovered that I was spending much of my travelling time recording events for a future that never happened. Perhaps it was that magnificent photograph in Morocco that convinced me. I got it all perfect: Two camels walking by, palm trees in the background, the sun setting. “I’ll make a large print and frame it: this will be our memory of Morocco,&requo; I told my wife.

In fact, I am not even certain that I ever looked at the resulting photograph. Happily, the moment is etched forever in my true memory, perhaps in better form than the photograph (which for all I know, has telegraph wires, and everything out-of-focus).

Probably we’ve all seen a wedding reception, an event meant to be full of spontaneous expressions of joy, transformed by the photographer into a series of staged events. “Kiss the bride.&rdqu; “Again, please.” “Cut a piece of the wedding cake.” “Each of you feed the other.” “All you spectators, move out of the way of the camera.” It is amazing how tolerant we have become of this manipulation of the experience: the act of recording taking precedence over the event.

Technology’s Short Lifespan: Are Those Memories Really Forever?

Suppose that we deliberately seek to record critical events in our lives so that on future years we might revisit these important times. I record the appearances of my family, from marriage and birth, through schools and weddings, trials and tribulations. Yes, human memory has wonderful powers, but it has (at least) two major limitations:

A first major limitation is that our memories of people are always being continually revised, continually adjusted. We remember people as they are today, not as they were then. It is very hard to remember what a close companion looked like 20 years ago: the image of today overwhelms the image of the past.

This is actually a good thing, for otherwise we would not recognize people when they changed clothes, or hairstyle, or even posture. I have had a beard for scores of years, so long that neither I nor my wife remember what I looked like without one. I have to resort to photographs to remember myself (and my children cannot believe they show the same person).

On the other hand, if someone grows a beard and keeps it for a year or so, then one day suddenly shaves it off, the surprising thing is how few people who knew him before and during the beard notice its absence. Most people notice something – “Did you change your glasses?” – but not the absence of the beard. Memory is extremely flexible, always modifying its image. Even the events that we remember with great clarity may be deceptive, for what we take to be a complete and accurate memory may differ substantially from the actual happening. Our memories reveal their flexibility with everyday experiences. Here, memory can be amazingly insensitive to change, adjusting itself to the normal changes in appearances. This adjustment process can also make it difficult to recover how the people we interact with everyday appeared in the past.

We are slow to notice changes in our daily acquaintances. I live with my children every day for years and hardly notice that they are growing taller and more mature at a rapid pace. It is only when I go away for a lengthy trip and return a week or more later that I am astonished by how tall and grown-up they have become. Families often do not notice the deteriorating behavior and activities of their members, so that major symptoms of diseases can go unnoticed, even though they are immediately obvious to a newcomer. Presence breeds familiarity, encouraging the perception that how it is now is how it has always been.

A second limitation of human memory is that it is a private experience. Whether our memory of an event is accurate or not, vivid or faint, we cannot share it with others exactly as we experienced it..

And so for these and other reasons, we turn to technology to provide a long-lasting record of our experiences and moments in a way that is unchangeable over time as well as accessible to others. But how long lasting is the record of technology?

In my studies of technology, I have distinguished between two different modes of representing information. An artifact can have a surface representation or an internal one. A surface representation is like the words on the page of this book. The information is all there on the surface: what you see is what there is. Photographs, drawings, letters, and books all exploit surface representations.

The advantage of surface representation is that no technology is needed to experience it: all one has to do is look, and there it is. All that matters is that the artifact still exists, and the marks on the surface are still visible.

This is not as simple as it might seem. In the past hundred years, most paper has been manufactured using an acid-based technology that destroys the paper itself after some time. Most of us have experienced the deterioration of newspapers: leave one exposed to the light, and a year or two later, it crumbles and fades away. Books and personal notes have a similar, if slower deterioration. Today, paper manufacturers recognize this problem and most quality books are published on acid-free papers. But notepads are not.

Photographs also fade. Slide, color prints, and black and white photographs last only as long as their chemically activated marks stay there, as long as the paper on which they are printed is strong. Prints last longer if you don’t expose them to the light. So photographs last longer if you don’t look at them. Fortunately, we can expect books, notes, and photographs to last over 100 years, long enough for most purposes, certainly longer than the lifespan of the individuals who made them.

The story is quite different for those who entrust their records to internal artifacts, artifacts where the information is stored invisibly inside the material, where technology is required to retrieve it.

Remember the days when we recorded voices on spools of wire, rapidly passing before a magnetic head? You probably don’t remember the forerunner of today’s tape recorder. But that is just the point. If I recorded my baby’s first words on a wire recorder, or perhaps had the sole surviving recording of President Roosevelt’s farewell words to Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, they would be virtually unrecoverable. Unless someone could discover a working version of the wire recorder (or could make one), there would be no way to recover those sounds again. Or suppose I had recorded the sounds on one of Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph records.

Do you think the videotape technology we use today will be around fifty years from now? No way. Today’s videotapes will not be playable. Nor audio tapes. Nor phonograph records.

The same, sad story is true of all technologies that use internal storage: that is, any recording device that requires another technology to reproduce it.

The same problems have already affected science. The American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has tens of thousands of reels of magnetic tape, carefully preserved, with data recorded from space and satellites. From those data we could follow in detail the earth’s weather patterns and cycles of plant growth, or water, or pollution. Except that they are recorded on an old-fashioned tape with an old-fashioned format that can no longer be read by today’s computers.

I have not even discussed the fact that the magnetic particles on computer, video, and audio tapes and wire recordings do not last forever. They slowly migrate, losing their signals. And the tape itself cracks and deteriorates.

Nothing in this world is permanent, nothing lasts forever. But most of us had not counted on technology’s assistance in hastening the demise of our memories.

But there is a positive side to the use of recording devices: situations where they intensify the experience. Most of the time this takes place only with less sophisticated artifacts: sketch pad, the painter’s easel, and the notebook. Those who benefit from these intensifying artifacts tend to be artists and writers. But the benefits are not restricted to these people, and with the proper frame of mind, can extend to photographers as well. The critical point is that with these artifacts, the act of recording forces one to look and experience with more intensity and enjoyment than might otherwise be the case.

I was first exposed to the contrast between the obstructionist and the intensifying artifact on a journey to the Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan) in China. This was a long trek, one that for many Chinese was a lifetime dream. The Yellow Mountains are located in the province of Anhui, and for my family and our hosts, it was a five day trip. One long day’s drive in a crowded Toyota van. Three days of hiking and then the day-long drive back to Hefei and the University. In the Yellow Mountains itself, the long trek was crowded, with an endless line of Chinese climbing patiently up the trail. The only other Westerner we encountered turned out to be an American photographer for the National Geographic Society.

The peaks were amazing sights of beauty. The clouds formed a sea, and small peaks here and there poked their heads above the sea, as if they were islands. In fact, we spent the first night on the mountains at a location called “The North Sea,” the name referring to the way in which the mountain tops looked like islands within the sea of clouds. The rocks – and for that matter, the vegetation – were distorted in what I can only describe as in a Chinese manner. I suddenly realized that the grotesque shapes and forms in many Chinese scroll paintings were not from imagination: that is how the countryside really looks.

How to record such a wondrous event? My family and I, true to our tradition of mental recordings, simply walked around in awe and wonder. The modern Chinese all had cameras, and they photographed one another standing against the traditional monuments of the Yellow Mountain. Actually, we turned out to be one of the main sights, especially my (then) 5 year old, blond-haired, blue-eyed son. Chinese crowded around to have their pictures taken with this strange and foreign person (pinching and tugging at the hair to make sure it was real). The people crowding around us and Eric remain part of our memory of that trip. As for those with cameras, I suspect their pictures are not so much to remember the experience as to prove the experience: they can show all others that look, see the proof that I did this journey: here I am in front of Purple Cloud Peak; here I am with the foreign yellow-haired western boy. See, it must be true.

But what impressed me more was the large crowd of artists. Early in the morning, as the sun’s rays broke through the mist, the top of the mountains peeking through the sea of clouds, the artists scrambled to vantage points where they would sit patiently for hours, drawing, painting, recording.

Why would anyone want to draw when they could photograph and get an exact image? Because the drawing made the experience personal. And the act of drawing requires a degree of concentration and study that intensifies the experience. So even if the drawing is thrown away and never looked at, the active participation in its creation makes the experience of the Yellow Mountain more intense, more personal, more enjoyable.

Unlike the wedding photographers I described earlier, some who use cameras can also have the intensifying experience. These are the photographers who are artists, the ones who examine and study the scenes with care, intensely noting this feature and that, planning the photograph taking with their artistic sense. For these photographers, the experience is enhanced in much the same way as is the person sketching the scene: intense concentration, a feeling of participating in the event. Drawings, painting, and photographs made from these perspectives can all reveal aspects of the scene not apparent even to others who were there. It is not the artifact that is obstructionist: it is the way in which it is applied.

There is a negative aspect to this enhanced perception. I would like to be able to tell you how the active recording of the event, whether in picture or words, makes one ever more sensible to the critical details and experience, the better to describe it. Alas, although the statement is true, the flaw is that the act of recording is often slower than the event itself, so the act of concentrating upon one aspect of the event guarantees that all the others will be missed. At the Yellow Mountain, changes occurred slowly, but even so, an hour spent drawing the southerly view prevented the artist from experiencing the other views, and each was different, each continually revealing nuances and subtleties of the experience.

In fact, the note-taking for this essay makes the point. The notes that became this essay were triggered by my examination of the video cameras at my song’s sixth grade play. I watched with great interest the goings-on of the parents. I took out my pocket notebook and started to write my thoughts. But midway through the note-taking, on the sixth page, I was interrupted by a poke in the ribs. My wife pointed out that my rapt attention to the video cameras and my notepad made me ignore our son, who was at that very moment on the stage reciting his part in the play.

But certainly we will do better in the future, will we not? Notepads will actually be computers, accepting handwriting, or shorthand, keyboard or speech. These technologies will change the act of notetaking, and for many of us, speed it up. But perhaps the slowness of handwriting is a blessing, allowing time for more reflection and contemplation. When the written words keep up with thoughts, maybe the thoughts stay at a shallow level? And if the words keep up, there is no time left over for contemplation. And what of the annoyance to the people around you, for they too are trying to enjoy the experience. The spoken voice, no matter how softly produced, will surely annoy, as will the clicking of the keyboard or the inevitable beeps of the electronic artifact. There is much virtue in keeping things simple, perhaps to the old fashioned technology. The technology must fit the pace and nature of the task and situation.

Why Bother?

With all the problems of recording events, why bother? I can see many reasons for recording an event for future use, whether by obstructionist, intensifying, or vicarious means. I am not opposed to records, for I too enjoy reminiscing about the past, sharing photographs of special occasions at family gatherings. Photographs allow a sharing of the experience, a sharpening of the memory. The trick is to have gotten the photographs naturally, without interfering with or even destroying the original event.

But today, the recording of events has taken on its own life, seemingly performed solely for the sake of the recording itself. Many of the instances that I see just don’t make any sense.

I always wonder at all those tape recorders facing me in the lecture room. If the students didn’t have time to come to class, why will they have time to listen to me later?

After all, it takes just as long to watch the recording as the original. Yet lots of people who do not have time to come to the original event record it instead.

Isn’t the ultimate folly when people tape television shows or family gatherings, or have other people tape meetings and lectures for them because the events occurred at an inconvenient time, but then, having taped them, never watch them. Ever. Maybe they think there is no need to watch them: knowing that they are there is enough. It’s like owing an encyclopedia. It’s very reassuring, sitting there impressively on the bookshelf. You don’t ever actually have to read the encyclopedia: just having it is enough.

Or, what about those who both attend my lectures and record them? Gad, it’s bad enough to have to suffer through me once without having to do it twice. What will be in that tape that is so precious? Actually, the second listening can actually take longer than the original. True, in listening to a tape you can skip over the bad parts, but only if you know beforehand that it is a bad part. And if you try to listen to any section carefully, especially to take detailed notes, it is apt to take considerably longer than the original experience.

In many areas of science, especially social science, it is necessary to create typed transcriptions of tape recordings of speech. Those who create the transcriptions – typing each word as it was uttered with high precision – require as much as ten hours to transcribe a single hour of audio tape. Try to transcribe a video recording and the time goes up immensely. Twenty, thirty, forty hours per hour of tape is not uncommon.

Why? Because those who record have to look and record every pause, um, hmm, cough. Every glance of the eye and false hesitation, because it may be important for the understanding of the event. And it usually is.

Human communication is a rich process. We do not communicate by words alone. The written word is a different thing altogether than the actual spoken, gesturing, active presence. In spoken language the subtleties are conveyed both by speaker and listener, the one clueing the other as to the amount understood and the points of real interest. Written language makes up for this by many artificial conventions, which is one reason why written language is so hard to produce.

If you want to chat with me for an hour, all we need is an hour’s time. We arrange to meet. We chat. And that is that.

If you want to read my words for an hour, then I must work much harder. In fact, since you can read between 100 to 300 words per minute, I must prepare 6,000 to 18,000 words of text: from 13 to 40 pages of printed text to fill your reading hour. That may take me ten hours of writing (and this would be considered very fast writing indeed). That much material could easily take a month to write, longer if the material was at all complex.

Notice the discrepancy. It takes about ten hours of work to transform an hour’s worth of spoken speech into a typed, word-for-word transcription. And it takes about ten hours of work to transform the ideas in my head into a text that you can read in about an hour.

Written and spoken speech are so different that we are ill served by artifacts that too readily attempt to convert one into the other. The difference becomes dramatically apparent if you ever read a transcript of a spoken interchange. What appeared to be fluent, graceful, profound speech in reality turns out to be clumsy, repetitive, ill-formed in the reading.

I wonder at the thousands of dollars conference organizers sometimes spend to tape record every precious word of a conference. Sometimes a crew of three people is required to work the microphones and tape recorders, to keep a written record of which tape goes with which session, and to ensure that a fresh tape is always ready when the old one is full. The more sophisticated crews use several tape recorders so that no gap occurs in the recording when it is necessary to change tapes.

But for what purpose are these recordings made? Why bother? In all the conferences that I have attended where recordings have been made, mostly they sit unlistened to when it is all over.

The effort of listening to hundreds of hours of tapes is overwhelming, especially when the transcripts will miss the subtleties of real live interaction and provide instead, deadly, stilted, hesitating words.

Life Through Video Tape

My scientific research focuses upon how people interact with technology. Many of the interactions are recorded on video tape so that the interactions can be studied in detail. As a result, I often spend hours at the University watching video tapes, carefully backing up after critical events and reviewing them, the better able to understand each word or observe each movement. After a day of this I come home to watch the evening news. When I miss some critical phrase or event – quick, I reach for the control and try to reverse the action. But I can’t: real life just can’t be manipulated as easily as tape. Or can it?

Consider the extreme case of a recording and playback technology run amok. A real meeting must be endured for its entire duration. A video tape of a meeting can be viewed selectively, with individual segments ignored, skimmed, or listened to repeatedly. Suppose this were possible with real life: Would that be blessing or curse?

Suppose we had a tape loop always at work on our home video recorder. Suppose it were a loop of tape that lasted, oh, three hours, with the current events always being recorded over the section of tape that happened three hours ago. I watch the TV, not live, but on tape, just delayed a fraction of a second after the events really happen.

Now suppose I come home again tired after a day at work and want to watch the evening news. If at a critical point I have to leave the set, I simply put the world on hold. The recording continues, but the playback head marks the place on the tape where I stopped watching. When I return to the room, to resume watching, the playback continues from exactly where I left off. As far as I am concerned, I am watching the news as it happens, but in fact, I am watching the events delayed by the amount of time I was out of the room.

Suppose I am watching some sporting event and I want to review the last play: I flip my controller to reverse and back up to the point where the interesting event starts. Now I can watch it with more care, reviewing it as much as I like. Then I can resume the playback of the sporting event. Once again, as far as I am concerned, I am watching the event as it happens, but in fact, I am watching the events delayed by the amount of time I spent playing back the interesting parts.

And finally, if something is boring, I can zip ahead as fast as I like (although I can never get ahead of the recording head, or in this case, of the actual events).

Now consider the Event Fanatic of the Future – call this fanatic Eff. Eff views the real world through a TV lens, listens through earphones. TV goggles are securely strapped to the head, electronics strapped to the waist, lenses and microphones mounted on the head. At first glance, this would appear to offer no advantage: Eff simply sees everything through TV instead of live, like the rest of us. But Eff views the world through a tape delay. When something boring happens, Eff can fast forward through it, at least until the tape is synchronized with reality once again. When something interesting happens, Eff can repeat it, right away, secure in the knowledge that if anything else interesting was happening at the same time, it would still be available for watching.

Eff, the event fanatic of the future. Eff experiences the world through TV: lenses and microphones on the eyeglasses pick up the scenes of the world, pass them to the electronics at belt level, and then return them to miniature TV screens inside the glasses that Eff watches. Interesting scenes can be stopped and reviewed at leisure. Boring scenes can be turned off, or even skipped via fast-forward.

Pity the poor professor lecturing to the class: Eff is paying careful attention, but it might be to something that was said five minutes ago. Or maybe to the current soap opera – who can tell? But then, in this case, maybe the professor is replaced by a computer-generated television image. Artificial images teaching artificial minds.

Alas, we seem enamored of our recording technologies, so much so that the act of making the recordings dominates. Will we also become enamored of playback technologies? Will the world be filled with event fanatics, lacking patience with real life, always wanting to skip around, now skimming ahead, now reviewing the past, continually skipping from one source of material to another?

Experience with technology teaches us that once a technology makes something possible, it gets applied, whether for good or bad. It makes sense to be able to show the 6th grade play to interested relatives – grandparents, perhaps – who could not attend. It makes no sense to destroy the experience through the act of recording it. It makes sense to have control over the viewing of records. It makes no sense to sacrifice human social relations in the process. Which will it be? I put my faith in people. Human social interaction is too important, too fundamental, to fall to obstructionist artifacts and event fanatics.