One morning a few months ago, I woke up early and had a really fascinating thought about art, technology, history and fiction.
Since it was way too early to stay awake, I wrote it down in one of my sketchbooks and went back to sleep again – before writing this article later that day. At the time, I couldn’t remember exactly how this idea came to me, but it was probably as a result of yet another cynical thought about the modern world.
Basically, before about a century and a half ago – the only ways to record interesting things that happened were in writing, through drawings and paintings or through oral storytelling. Even up to a decade and a half ago, if you saw something interesting, you could only create an instant record of it if you’d remembered to bring a camera, a video camera or a microphone of some kind.
These days, of course, virtually everyone in Europe, America, South Korea, Japan, Australia etc.. has either a smartphone or a camera phone which they carry around almost all of the time.
If you want to create a reliable record of something, then you can do it instantly. Not only that, you can share it with the world instantly. This has had a lot of good effects on the world – like documenting acts of police brutality in America (which would have otherwise gone unreported), helping journalists to research news reports etc…
But, at the same time, I’d like to think about how it has negatively affected both art and fiction in the present day. As someone who doesn’t own a camera phone or a smartphone (and who has briefly owned a digital camera that no longer works and a few disposable cameras… does anyone remember those?), I probably have a slightly different perspective on this.
As cynical as I am about the modern craze of taking “selfie” photos at every possible opportunity, I can sort of understand it if I think about it for a while.
Yes, if you’re somewhere interesting, then it’d probably be a better idea to actually take photos of that place, rather than of yourself. But, at the same time, it’s practically a human instinct to document our lives – it’s a way of showing that we were here and that we existed. It’s a kind of psychological insurance against our inevitable mortality.
Before the age of smartphones, social media and camera phones, people used to keep diaries a lot more often. The interesting thing about keeping a diary is that, unlike a photo or a video, it’s not only a record of what happened, but also a record of who you were at that time.
In something as private as a diary, you can also record your opinions, your perspective and your thoughts in a way that a photo, a video or an ephemeral online comment just can’t do. A diary is a one-of-a-kind record of something that has been filtered through the unique lens of one person’s mind at one point in time.
Not only that, if you’re creative in any way, then one of the best ways to record a part of your life or somewhere interesting you’ve been is through art and/or fiction. If you don’t have instant access to a camera, then the only way to preserve your memories is through stories and art. But, since memory is slightly unreliable and people expect fiction and art to be “larger than life”, then you can also record how you felt about a particular place or moment in time.
In other words, you can use artistic licence. If you liked a place, you can make it look even more awesome in your art. If somewhere really inspired you, then you can use it as the setting for a really interesting story. You can show the world how you felt about something or somewhere and, more importantly, how your imagination reacted to it. Yes, it won’t be an “accurate” record, but it’ll be far more interesting than anything taken by a camera.
Not only that, the ubiquitous presence of cameras in the modern world has removed a lot of the ambiguity from life. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I couldn’t quite remember all of the idea that inspired this article. What this meant was that I had to think about what I was going to write a bit more. It meant that this article is probably slightly different to the one I would have written if I hadn’t gone to sleep again. I’ll never know what that other article might have looked like.
Although the lack of ambiguity in modern life is a brilliant thing for journalists and historians, it’s a terrible thing for artists and writers. Why? Because art and fiction often rely on ambiguity. They rely on suggestion and they rely on using imagination to “fill in the gaps” in ideas and memories.
If there’s some ambiguity about what somewhere looked like, or what might have happened somewhere – then this gives artists and writers far more leeway when it comes to thinking of creative ideas.
It gives artists and writers far more opportunity to let their imaginations turn real life into something much better than real life.
And, let’s be honest, isn’t that the whole point of art and fiction?
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂