Mediated visions

Technology has changed, but humans haven't — what is it about mediating an experience through a frame that makes it seem better?

ImpactLab has posted a nice pair of photos contrasting 2005 and 2013 in St. Peter’s Square. 2005 looks pretty much as you’d expect: lots of people in a crowd. In 2013, though, everyone is holding up a tablet, either photographing or perhaps even watching the event through the tablet.

The ImpactLab post asks about the changes in our technology during these eight years. That’s interesting, but not what grabs me. What gets me is that this isn’t new. In the 18th century, one fad was to view nature through a portable picture frame. I wasn’t able to find this in a quick Google search, but screw the documentation. I’ve seen these things in a museum: they look like a miniature gilded picture frame, roughly the size of an iPad, with a stick coming from the corner so you can hold it before your eyes. So you’d sit in your carriage with the curtains open, look out the window through this frame, and see a moving picture. A slightly higher-tech variant of this is the Claude Glass (see, I can haz links), in which you viewed the natural scene through a slightly tinted mirror, to make it look even more like a painting. (This is arguably the origin of the term “picturesque.”)

Technology has changed a bit (sort of) in the last 250 years, but the phenomenon certainly has not. What is it about mediating an experience through a frame that makes it seem better? Pictures painted by “artists” somehow become more important, especially if you fetishize the scene itself, rather than the artist’s act. Do we go to see the Grand Canyon or Yosemite because of Ansel Adams’ photographs? Do we want to see what he saw? And, if so, does framing the scene through your iPad help you to see like a great photographer? And then to the next step: if framing the scene grants a certain artistic legitimacy, absent the artist, why not use it on other scenes? Why not go to Saint Peter’s Square and watch the Pope through your iPad?

What’s curious to me is the way viewers, in both the 18th and 21st centuries, strip immediacy from experience. My daughter used to joke about nature deficit disorder, but it turns out that’s a real thing. In The Unmediated Vision, one of the greatest studies of Wordsworth’s poetry, Geoffrey Hartman talks about the Romantic desire to strip mediation from poetic vision, a process that was both exhilirating and sublime. But it’s impossible to maintain this vision for more than a glimpse; it may be awesome, but it is also terrifying. “Awesome” is never comfortable, and can’t be experienced for more than a split second before we retreat and put it into boxes.

Technology has changed, but humans haven’t. Like the pre-romantics, we’re seeing the world through frames. High-technology frames of silicon, Gorilla Glass, and plastic, but frames nonetheless. And, while it seems that we can’t do without our frames, we need to ask ourselves how they modify, distort, and ultimately tame our experience.