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Zooming through the looking glass

Since the first camera lens, virtual technologies have changed the way we see the world and each other. But at what cost?

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…

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