What I remember from the days of the Rodney King beating, trial and subsequent riots is not so much the content I viewed but how it made me feel. I remember being shocked that this had actually happened, that police had hit a man almost 60 times with their batons.
I remember wondering why no one stopped it. And I remember thinking what an amazing coincidence that someone with a camera had caught the whole thing on tape.
Today I went back and viewed that original video on YouTube and I noticed something else, something I didn't notice then but that seems so at odds now. I saw a newscast where the police chief condemned the police officers involved — immediately and swiftly declaring that criminal charges would be laid. I saw national media expressing the same shock that I felt. I saw people reacting strongly and emphatically to what was so obviously a wrong.
The Rodney King story lived in our collective conscience for a long time. And from the original airings of that extraordinary tape to the media coverage of the riots following the officers' trial, we were all enthralled. The video footage of that first moment brought immediacy and impact to what may have been just another news story. Today, having an event of any kind, whether spectacular or mundane, videotaped by some observer is so commonplace that it's usually more surprising when they're isn't "film at 11."
But, to have the impact that the King tape did is less common, and to maintain the public's interest for a full year is practically unheard of.
Our children are growing up in a surveilled society. And it's not Big Brother, corporate or government institutions doing the majority of it; it's their fellow citizens, like George Holliday (the man with a home video recorder who filmed the King beating), and they themselves.
And yet, at the same time, the effect — the immediacy and impact — that video footage once brought to coverage of current events has been dissipated, even numbed.
In Marshall McLuhan's landmark essay "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man," he coined the oft-repeated phrase "the medium is the message." What he meant by that was not that our choice of medium affects our message, as is commonly understood, but that the medium itself changes, in some way, how people essentially act, thereby introducing real "psychic and social consequences" to human society. And those changes and consequences are brought about solely by the medium itself, not the content portrayed by it.
McLuhan goes on to discuss how advances in technology — or media — can result in generational gaps when the social and psychic changes that accompany these "advances" are not understood.
Video, the handheld video recorder, digital video, smartphone, iPhones, 3G and Wi-Fi for instant sharing of recorded moments ... all of these mediums have created changes not just in the way we respond to each other and the events surrounding us, but also in how we react to those recorded moments. The fact is, they're so commonplace, and we have them in such overabundance, that we have made a shift to the point where we are neither the gazed upon, nor the gazer, but both, and simultaneously, neither.
Michael Foucault talks of the power of the gazer, or the "inspecting gaze" as being the ability to see without being seen. This position, to him, is the essence of power. Yet, in our society, even the watchers are watched. The idea of a Big Brother viewing us all is very backward to today's youth, for we are all viewing us all at every moment.
And because of that, we seem to have become stuck into what McLuhan described as a Narcissus effect; he describes how the youth Narcissus — from "narcosis," meaning numbness — mistakes his reflection for another person and becomes stuck in the act of gazing upon himself, finally becoming the reflection of his own reflection.
This is the danger, I believe, in a time when reality TV rules the airwaves and webcams rule our children's social lives — that they may become stuck in the act of performance, but that the performance they portray as a reality is really just a reflection of a reflection.
Has the proliferation of video recording devices changed how we act as humans? In some implicit ways it certainly has — we are all aware that we are now under surveillance and we will perform accordingly. But will it prevent the baser moments of human passion? I don't think so. After all, we have all seen that even today there are Rodney Kings: Robert Dziekanski, the Quebec student protestors, Syrian children.
What it has done, though, as the media and phenomena have grown, is made us overwhelmed with and slightly numb to the people and events around us. In a year's time, who will still be caught up in the Quebec student protests? Who will still see the images of murdered Syrian children when they close their eyes? Reality — on video — has no staying power anymore; once viewed it is dismissed. We have made reality a part of our social fabric as something we consider easily manipulated, as in reality TV, and something that acts more as entertainment than enlightenment. The "film at 11" phenomenon has turned events like the Rodney King beating into nightly "infotainment," rather than the catalysing snippet of real human experience it was.
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