To See, or To Be Seen

When we think about the consequences of a new technology, we are prone to ask about what can be done with it. We think, in other words, of the technology as a tool which is put to this use or that. We then ask whether that use is good or bad, or possibly indifferent.

So take, for example, a relatively new product like Twitter’s Vine. Vine is an app that is to video what Twitter is to text. It invites you to record and post videos, but these videos can be no more the six seconds in length. If you’re unfamiliar with Vine, you can watch a seemingly random selection of new videos at Vinepeek.


When you first hear of Vine, and you think about evaluating it (because you happen to be in a critical frame of mind), what sorts of questions do you ask? I suspect the first question that will typically come to mind is this: What will people post with this new tool? Will the videos be touching, beautiful, surprising, revealing? Will they be trashy, abusive, pornographic, violent? Or, will they be inane, predictable, mind-numbing?

Of course, videos posted to Vine will likely be all of these things in some necessarily depressing proportion. But this is only the first and most obvious question one could ask.

Here is another possible question: How does the use of Vine shape the way one perceives experience?

There are other questions, of course, but it is this question of perception I find to be really fascinating. The use of technology leads to consequential actions out there, in the world. But the use of technology also carries important consequences in here, within me. The question of perception is especially important for two reasons. First, and most obviously, our perception is the ground of pretty much everything else we do. How we “see” things leads to certain kinds of thoughts and feelings and actions. Secondly, that by which we perceive tends to fade from view; we don’t, to take the most obvious example, see the eyes through which we see everything else.

This means that one of the most important consequences of a new technology might also be the consequence we are least likely to become aware of, and this only heightens its influence.

So how does the use of Vine shape perception? Like most documentary technology, the use of Vine will likely encourage users to “see” potential Vines in their experience just as a camera encourages users to “see” potential photographs. But what do we make of this new frame by which we are prompted perceive? That depends, I think, on the degree to which users become self-aware of the medium, the possibilities it creates, and the constraints it imposes.

Reality is always out there; certain aspects are apparent to us, certain aspects are concealed. New technologies may reconfigure what is revealed and what is concealed to us. Slow-motion film, for instance, does not create a new reality; it alters perception and thereby reveals previously concealed dimensions of reality. (I think this is the sort of thing Walter Benjamin had in mind when he discussed the “optical unconscious.”)

Technologies of perception — and really all technologies impact perception — reveal and conceal. No one technology can simultaneously reveal the whole of reality. If it reveals some new dimension of reality, it is because it simultaneously conceals some other dimension. A user that is self-conscious of how a new technology can be used to perceive experience creatively might use a new medium such as Vine to imaginatively make others aware of some previously unnoticed aspect of reality.

To those who care about such things, I think that Martin Heidegger’s influence is hiding between the lines of this post. The German philosopher had a great deal to say about technology and how it affects our perception, how it becomes a part of us. He used the phrase “standing reserve” to describe how modern technology encouraged us to reduce material reality to a fund of resources just there on stand-by, “ready-to-hand,” that is ready to be put to use by us for our purposes. The intrinsic properties of what is rendered merely standing reserve are obscured or lost altogether. We see, we perceive such things only as they are useful to us. We don’t see such things as they are; and “such things” are sometimes not “things,” but persons.

With a technology like Vine, the question may be whether it is used with a view  to the world as “standing-reserve,” there merely to be exploited for our own uses (which often amount to making ourselves seen), or whether it is used as a means of revealing the world, of allowing some previously muted aspect of reality to be seen.

Of course, this question applies to much more than Vine. It is a question to ask of all technology.

4 thoughts on “To See, or To Be Seen

  1. If only we could learn to ask the second question as part of the first group. If “how might this change how we see the world” was asked at the same time as “how can we use this,” I think we’d be making some progress toward a more holistic social consideration of technology.

  2. I think one of the important things to think about is: Given that we are never able to anticipate the uses or abuses of technologies that we are develop, what can we do to avoid harm? One solution is to simply stop inventing, but this is hardly one we would like to go. Another solution is to create a strong civil society that exerts collective control over technologies.

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