Video technology turns us inside out. McLuhan led us to this conclusion when he said that tools extend human functions. The wheel, he said, is an extension of the foot; the hammer, an extension of the arm. This makes such tools, in a sense, externalizations of body parts. Following his line of reasoning, we run into a scary insight when studying information and communications technology. The telephone may be only an extension of the ear and the television camera by itself one of the eye, but what part of us does the database externalize, what part the complete video production system?
The answer is unavoidable: they extend the mind. The database externalizes and amplifies the mind’s ability to save and sort information. The video production system is even more frightening. It mimics the mind’s ability to generate and assemble moving images and sounds. This is the mental function responsible for dreams and hallucinations. Look at your editing system: machines outside your body trying to emulate functions from deep inside your mind.
A sidelight to all of this technical extending of ourselves is the fact that we have not extended all our parts proportionately. Homo technicalis seems a funhouse distortion of homo sapiens, not simply a larger, stronger representative of the same species. If technological humanity had a single body it would have very large feet, hands and arms, a relatively minuscule–but growing–head and no heart or gut to speak of. We see a frightening creature: long thick limbs attached to puny torso governed by an expanding forehead.
The main point here, however, is not the way we change our proportions through extending technology–it’s that we lose something in the extension. The hammer greatly amplifies the clobbering power of the hand, but it greatly diminishes its sense of touch. What would you say about a man who could feel things only by hitting them with a hammer? Anything you’d like, as long as he doesn’t hear you.
It’s a little unsettling to think about what we lose using cars instead of feet and dishwashers instead of hands, but it’s downright chilling to think about what might be happening to us when we use information and communication machines instead of our minds. For example: people once had the ability to add and subtract. Today, administrators of SAT exams find they must let students take the tests with calculators.
Here’s the rub. With all the amplified data processing going on, are we losing the ability to really think, to construct syllogisms, to analyze? With all the video production going on will our ability to really dream atrophy from dis-use?
This isn’t a Luddite rant, only a word of caution. The air around videomakers often hums with machine talk. “I’ve got an editor that is accurate down to the scan line,” or, “This unit comes with 340 digital video effects.” These machines can generate, manipulate and assemble moving images for us, but they cannot impart to them what the dreaming mind imparts. They cannot give them meaning.
Whether your gear is fancy or plain, struggle to avoid gear addiction. A good exercise: assign yourself arbitrary technical constraints in order to more fully exercise your creative gifts. Make a video with no sound, for example, to really hone your skill at telling a story visually. Make a video with no picture to exercise your ability to communicate fully through the soundtrack. More importantly, dwell on the meanings behind the pictures and sound.
No better example comes to mind than one of the winners of our video contest a couple of years back. This videomaker took an ancient black-and-white Porta-Pak out onto the sidewalk in Greenwich Village’s St. Mark’s Place. He simply asked passers-by what they thought about God. The resulting tape showed more of the inner lining of life in New York than many another fully-funded documentary.
Videomakers must learn to push the right buttons and to match jacks with plugs, but it’s crucial that we often turn our attention from these concerns. We should work as much with our hearts as with our black boxes, lest our wellsprings of imagination and inspiration dry up; lest we end with productions full of glitze, “Sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”
Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.