The novelist Karen Russell recently reflected on her experience as a new parent with a baby monitor, one that streams footage directly to a smartphone app and sends notifications whenever it registers certain kinds of movement in the room.
“I’ve become addicted to live-streaming plotless footage of our baby,” Russell admits, but her brief, poetic essay ends with a reflection on the limitations of such pervasive surveillance and documentation:
“Children vanish without dying,” Joy Williams wrote. Every time the app refreshes and shows an empty crib, I feel a stab of surprise. Children do endure in space and time, but they’re always changing, and no camera is sensitive enough to record the uncanny speed at which this transformation happens. Already the baby has doubled in size. “A slow-motion instant,” a friend and veteran parent told me, describing how the years would now pass. A camera is a tool that spools up time, but of course it cannot stop it.
This paragraph reveals a paradox at the heart of our obsessive documentation. When our documentation is motivated, as it so often is, by a rebellion against the unremitting passage of time, it will only accelerate the rate at which we experience time’s passing. If a camera spools up time without stopping it, then those same spools of time, the moments we have captured and horded, heighten our awareness of time’s ephemeral and fleeting nature.
It is striking, upon reflection, that we use the word capture to describe what we think we are doing when we visually document a moment. That we seek to capture these moments, these experiences, or, even more straightforwardly, these memories–as if we wanted to bypass the experience altogether and pass directly to its recollection … that capturing is what we think we are doing discloses our apprehension of time as something wild and unruly. We seek to master time, but it refuses to be domesticated.
Upon further reflection, it is also striking that it is a moment and not, say, a scene that we think we are capturing. That time and not space is the default category by which we understand what an image records suggests the true nature of the desires driving so much of our documentation. This is why we can never satisfactorily recreate a photograph. It was never the external and physical facts that we sought to document in the first place. It was more like a river of commingled sensation and emotion, one into which we can most certainly never step twice.
Concluding her essay, Russel writes, “When I’m unable to sleep, I can watch our baby. I am watching right now. I can see the bottoms of his feet and count his ten toes, virtually ruffle the pale cap of his hair. He is breathing, I am almost certain. Go in and check, says the Dark Voice of Unreason. Go in and touch him.”
And with these words, a second paradox emerges: we monitor in order to relieve anxiety, but our anxiety is heightened by our monitoring. Put another way, we will grow anxious about whatever we are able to monitor. We will monitor all the more insistently to relieve this anxiety, and our anxiety will intensify in turn.
There is nothing new about the anxieties parents feel when it comes to the security of their children, of course. And I suspect most parents have always felt a bittersweet joy in watching their children grow: saddened by the loss of all their child has been but gladdened by who they are becoming. But I do wonder whether or not these experiences are heightened and amplified by the very tools we deploy to overcome them.
Since Bacon’s day at least, we turn to technology for “the relief of man’s estate.” At what point, however, does the reasonable desire to alleviate human suffering morph into a misguided quest to escape the human condition altogether? Finding whatever joy and contentment we may reasonably aspire to in this life seems to depend on our answer to this question (at least, of course, in affluent and prosperous societies).
It is, to be sure, a line that is difficult to perceive and wisely navigate. But when our techniques yield only a heightened experience of the very disorders we seek to ameliorate, we may justly wonder whether we have crossed it.
This post is part of a series on being a parent in the digital age.