Back in the very early ’90s, I caught a documentary on cable about America’s then-nascent culture of candid video. (Don’t hold me to it, but I believe it was an episode of HBO’s America Undercover series titled “Surveillance: No Place to Hide.”) It was full of manipulative, button-pushy emotional swings typical of programs made by folks who don’t want to come right out and tell you that THE WORLD IS GOING TO SHIT, PEOPLE — in the interest of journalistic integrity, they balance the doomsaying with a few beneficial elements, and let the music and the tone do the talking.
So you got, like, 45 amusing seconds of a naked guy caught locking himself out of his apartment by the building’s security camera, and 45 harrowing minutes of hockey-dad fights and gay-bashing and dash-cam footage of state troopers getting shot and stuffed into the trunks of the stolen sedans they pulled over for burned-out blinker bulbs. I vividly remember a segment in which a group of troglodytic kids steal a tourist’s camcorder and tape themselves gleefully beating said tourist unconscious. It might’ve been the first time in history a video made by criminals of their own crimes was used as evidence in their prosecution.
Sure, I could spend the next 20 minutes on YouTube viewing all manner of carnage, mayhem and pranks that end with surgical staples, and I wouldn’t be bothered in the same way. I’d probably be bothered in that vague my-soul-needs-a-shower sort of way. But come on; destructive young morons are hoisted by their own cinema-verite petards about once a week on average, and real-life death is just another prime-time entertainment option.
I realize I’m not saying anything new. The ubiquity of video recording devices, and whether or not it’s a good thing, are topics discussed as often and as passionately in college classes, bars and newsrooms today as they were two decades ago. The only difference is, instead of debating how it’s going to change things, we now debate how it is changing things.
As if it hasn’t already changed things. Irrevocably.
A couple of recent tragedies might serve to show us exactly how much Planet Video has changed us — not the culture, not the circumstances, but people.
It seems a foregone conclusion that Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will be held accountable for the deaths of 17 Afghan villagers. Millions of us, who previously knew nothing about him and were thousands of miles away when the deaths occurred, assume he killed those people.
Several media mouths have stated/implied/posited that video incriminating Bales exists. But even if they hadn’t said so, we would assume some kind of video was out there. Comprehensive video surveillance is an integral element of modern warfare, particularly at military installations maintained in, erm, let’s say “unsecured environments” where plenty of people are trying to frag American asses using homemade landmines full of gunpowder and bits of sheet metal. That we’ll probably never see the video is moot. There’s video of everything, particularly war, and a soldier’s been arrested — ergo, somebody’s seen the video. We don’t need to; we can fill in the blanks.
Which is, I think, a not-inconsiderable factor contributing to the furor over the Trayvon Martin shooting.
A magician’s illusion relies on the audience’s expectation. The magician knows that’s just how our brains roll. In the absence of the literal sight of the thing itself, our minds fill in the blanks. That no video has come to light revealing any part of Martin’s terrible fatal encounter with George Zimmerman is incredibly frustrating to a culture accustomed to having a visual record of everything. And, given what record we do have, we’re filling in the blanks. We’re providing the video. It happens all the time. We don’t even think about it.
That, to me, is the scary thing.
The truth of the matter is this: Unless more definitive evidence comes to light, the only two people who will ever know for sure what happened that night are George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. It’s tragic and unsatisfying. But we need to be very, very careful about what we as a culture agree to “see,” simply because we’re so used to being shown everything, all the time, in high definition.
Because being unable to indulge our habits can be more than frustrating. It can be a fucking disaster.
Ask any addict.
Read more Scott Harrell at lifeasweblowit.com, and follow him at twitter.com/lifeasweblowit.