Since the first camera lens, virtual technologies have changed the way we see the world and each other. But at what cost?by Will Self / July 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
Soon after the discovery of photography in the 1830s, mundane objects captured by the lens—a hairbrush, say, or a china cup—acquired a curious frisson when reproduced on photographic plates. People seeing photographs for the first time wouldn’t regard them as a single integrated view, but rather as details—marvelling at the way, for example, a mason had applied the mortar between the bricks of the house opposite their own. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the great contemporary theorist of 19th-century mechanisation, puts it thus: “the intensive experience of the sensuous world, terminated by the industrial revolution, underwent a resurrection in the new institution of photography.”
Photography was soon also compensating its enthusiasts for the close-up immediacy annihilated by mechanised transport systems. The train window’s transparency metamorphosed into a magical immateriality, as the passenger ceased to be visually aware of his surroundings, but rather began to view the landscape the train passed through as a series of scenes or staged sets.
If photography supplied the foreground that was robbed by the train, then the train also delivered a huge array of new destinations. During the same period Marx developed his conception of commodities as goods rendered novel and mysterious by the fact of their transportation: imbued, like photographs, with assumptions about their production that turn them into screens; and onto which, in turn, people project their own twisted and exploitative relationships. He dubbed this “fetishism.”
If the train took from us what Ruskin called “an influence, from the silent sky and slumbering fields, more effectual than known or confessed,” the telegraph and the telephone deprived us of those forms of sociality which depended on the presence of others. It’s a truth universally forgotten in our clock-watching era, that when the characters in a Jane Austen novel are expecting company on a given day, they simply wait until the visitors arrive. This imprecision in the time for a rendezvous allowed encounters to be unbounded: conversations expanded into discourses just as luncheon morphed into high tea then dinner. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, with its atemporal neuroticism, perfectly exemplifies the later mid-Victorian mood, caught as it was between murderous timekeeping and a neverending teatime.
Concurrent technologies of virtuality and transport are again proving to be reciprocally compensatory in our own pandemic times. In the 15 years between the inception of a…