Uploading the whole of human experience

One of the annoying things about watching my TV on Hulu (or any of the various network websites) is that they have an incredibly limited series of commercials that I have to see again and again and again.
One that particular annoys me is an iPhone owner explaining the glories and vital importance of having an unlimited data plan: There’s an army of a billion photojournalists out there, ready to record and upload the whole of human experience! All of life is ours to capture and preserve, so why go with some data plan that caps your usage?
The minor annoyance is that no, a billion people with cellphones does not give us an army of photojournalists, any more than a billion people texting gives us an army of novelists. Photojournalism is a skill, not just a matter of pointing a camera because something interesting is happening. I think it is awesomely cool that we have the option to catch a photo any time we see something we want, but photojournalists have way better equipment (I used to work at a newspaper. Trust me, there’s a reason they carry all those lenses) and way better judgment in what makes a good picture. I’m a competent photographer—I’ve never failed to get usable photos for a story—but I’m competent enough to appreciate that really great photojournalism is way beyond anything I do.
The bigger one is the underlying premise. Sure, we could theoretically upload a lot of human experience, but what’s the point? We have the entirety of human experience already—it’s called life. What exactly do we gain if we did upload it?
Not a lot. Part of the key to taking great photos is knowing what to leave out, what not to record. Even the commercial acknowledges this: What we see are things like a mother and child embracing, a mob of teenagers throwing stones, a flower blossoming—striking moments, not the total human experience.
There are stories that attempt to capture the day-to-day sense of human experience. Slice-of-life tales, or personal histories such as Pekar’s American Splendor comics series. As John Seavey notes, this is trickier than it looks. Capturing the mundane details of everyday life and infusing them with some sort of meaning—or at the very least, not making them deathly boring—takes real skill, which may be why even successful true stories such as Perfect Storm or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fudge details.
If we did upload everything, it would be like Jorge Luis Borges’ Funes, his Memory (also known as Funes the Memorious), about a man who has total recall of every single minute of his life. It’s so overwhelming he’s incapable of analyzing, classifying or thinking critically about any of it. Or for another comparison, there’s Borges’ Library of Babel, where books that explain the meaning of everything are hidden in the white noise of false explanations and seeming nonsense that make up so many of the other books.
I’m glad the guy has no data cap, but I think he should find something better to do with it.


Filed under Personal, Writing

5 responses to “Uploading the whole of human experience

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  3. Dave

    Wow, you sound incredibly pompous. “I’m a capable photographer,” “Just because you can point and shoot doesn’t make you a photojournalist.” Well I’m going to tell you that you, in fact, are a photojournalist if you have taken a picture to record a story. Taken from google:

    a journalist who presents a story primarily through the use of photographs.

    Ok, so we’ve already concluded that anyone taking a picture to tell a story fits half of that definition. Now we need to define anyone taking a picture as a journalist.

    From Wikipedia (do you really care about accurate sources??)

    A journalist collects, writes and distributes news and other information.

    So an individual taking a picture to tell a story and intends to distribute it (FACEBOOK?!?!) is therefore a photojournalist. Therefore anyone with the intent to take a picture (or series of pictures) to capture a story with intentions of disseminating the information is a photojournalist. Therefore anyone with a smart phone generally qualifies as a photojournalist.

    So there, you’re pompous and wrong. But there’s a deeper meaning to why I felt the need to write this long winded (and equally pompous) message. You’ve also missed what the commercial is getting at – the human experience. Life is very different from the human experience, all organisms experience life – only we have the human experience. In particular the human experience is that of emotions which are a response to the experiences we encounter. One would not say that the human experience is waiting in traffic (though I might argue it is and deserves (and we see it even happen) photojournalism of it’s encounter), or watching TV at 3 in the morning. That isn’t what necessitates capture (or a data plan to support it). But even if it were captured, every waking moment of every single person’s life, your examples of why that is bad are irrelevant. An individual may have difficulty analyzing and classifying the mass amounts of data and information, but that’s not what it’s about. If one person gains a miniscule amount of utility from a single random photo (which encounter no disutility) then it has a net gain, therefore it is worthwhile.

    What I’m trying to say is that the human experience isn’t the flower blooming, is the amazement of the individual witnessing it. And who cares if you as the pompous blog writer cannot appreciate the greatness of that photo, there is someone out there who may.

    • frasersherman

      I disagree (surprise!). Posting a picture to facebook no more makes someone a photojournalist than cooking dinner makes you a sous chef. Or reporting that gossip you heard down at the pool hall makes someone a journalist (they are, after all, collecting stories).
      And yes, I do actually like good sources, so don’t bother quoting wikipedia (the definition is fine in this case, but Wikipedia isn’t proof of anything.)
      While I find your discussion of the commercial quite beautiful, it’s also wrong. The whole point of needing unlimited data caps (which the commercial was pushing) is that the narrator supposedly wants to upload everything. The flower is beautiful, but uploading everything makes it harder to find the gems among the chaff.
      And obviously you care, or you wouldn’t be responding.

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