Being Present

"A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it." -The First Law of Mentat, quoted by Paul Atreides to Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam[ref]From Dune by Frank Herbert[/ref] Once, during the semester I spent in Los Angeles, a bunch of people from my program all went down to the beach to watch the sunset. We hung out, roasted marshmallows, and had a good time.

As the sun sank over the horizon, everyone was looking out over the water. A few people had their phones out. I rarely took pictures on my phone (it was the first one I'd had that had a camera.) Surely for this, though, it was worth capturing for posterity.

So I pulled it out of my pocket and started snapping pictures. This was not an iPhone, either. Tiny lens, tiny sensor, tiny image file. As soon as the sky went dark, I realized I had watched the entire show on a two inch screen. Even with phone cameras now, and even with a bigger DSLR sensor, they can't compare to the resolution, the dynamic range, or the colorscape cape, of the naked eye.

In my analysis and theory classes, a recurring theme was remembering that the camera distorts whatever it sees. The frame, the lens, the film stock are all variables that you have to choose, and by making that choice, you cut off other avenues. Capturing real life is not as simple as setting up a tripod and turning the camera on.

Even trying to be "realistic" often denies the artificiality of what we create. To quote DB, "Realism is a fig leaf for doing what you want."

A better, subsequent sunset.

I've taken better pictures of sunsets since then, and I'm even more careful about when I do take pictures. Especially when I'm interacting with other people, it feels weird to place a camera between them and me. It's important to experience what's really going on around you.

We can put up barriers between us and the outside world in other ways, too. Los Angeles in particular seemed like it was in a bizarre bubble where everything was equally unreal. The weather was always the same, the buildings were sets, and everyone was a character.

Just before classes started, I took a walk through the apartment complex where we were all staying. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday. The pool was crowded with people, most of them actors, working on their tans and networking with each other. These were people who wanted to be the doctors, soldiers, lawyers, cheating husbands, and backstabbing girlfriends we see on screen- yet their existence was completely unlike the people they wanted to be. How could they inhabit these parts?

This is all a quirk of the entertainment industry, of course. It is this way because it must be.[ref]Or so I'm told.[/ref]

I don't mean to sound like everyone and his grandfather complaining about the damn teenagers on their phones all the time. Now that everyone has a decent video camera in their pocket, society can begin to change in positive ways. Unless you ask the police officers whose screwups and homicides keep going viral on teh interwebs.

The punchline to the sunset story is that about four months later, I left my phone with the pictures on it in a taxicab in New York City. Oh well. Electronics are transitory. Memory is until about age 65. If you're lucky.