I’m co-teaching a course this semester called Digital Identities and Participatory Culture. In class, we’ve been discussing some really interesting themes related to living a life online. One idea I found particularly interesting is “documentation leads experience.” Because people are always thinking about their online identities, what they can post or tweet or share, documentation leads experience. People decide what to do based on how the pictures will be received on facebook. This image of the Obama’s dancing at the Inaugural Ball while EVERYONE in the audience either films it or snaps pictures kind of says it all: you’re at the Inaugural Ball and you’re watching it through a tiny little lens?*
This immediately made me think about Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise, which I’m in the middle of rereading. There’s a scene near the beginning where Jack and his colleague Murray visit THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA:
We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along the cowpath to the slightly elevated cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides–pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
No one sees the barn. They only see a sign of the barn–even as they are photographing it. Because the barn has been photographed so much, it has ceased to exist as a real thing and has essentially become a simulacrum, or a sign with a referent so distant that the sign actually becomes more meaningful than the thing it refers to. Reality has been replaced with a representation. Not only does documentation lead experience, but documentation IS experience.
White Noise was published in 1985, long before the Internet really became a thing, and long, long before social networks.
Is it just me, or is DeLillo kind of a visionary?
*Ricky Van Veen makes this exact point with this exact example in his TedTalk.