Sometimes, the camcorder causes what it tapes. It does not observe passively. It stimulates the very activity it records.
A few clips on a recent edition of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” drove this home. We saw the teenagers in super-hero costumes clowning for the camera. Leaping out of a phone booth, one hurts himself. Then we saw the bicyclist trying to peddle up a home-made ramp to soar into space. The ramp didn’t bear his weight; he hurt himself. Another fellow stood on the platform of a train station. He turns to see the camera which had been covertly taping him, and begins a soft-shoe across the platform. He dances himself into a steel beam. He didn’t see the beam; he was looking at the camera.

If they had not seen a camcorder, the teens would not have clowned. If he had not seen a camera, the bicyclist would not have lost his concentration. If he had not had spotted the spying cam the train traveler would not have danced, would have watched where he was going.

Pass by the minor point that camcorders may indirectly cause injuries. More generally, their presence in the world changes our perceptions and behavior. We can reduce the pressure the camera exerts only by concealing the camera. Even then, once we show the tape from a concealed camera, it changes the perceptions of its viewers. Everyone becomes a bit more afraid of snoopers.

Some time ago, a video artist concealed cameras in trees along an isolated path in a forest. He placed monitors along the same path showing the live output from those cameras, and rolled tape. He showed the tapes in an art museum. We see people walking through the forest alone, in pairs or in small groups. Usually they walk quietly, moving at a leisurely pace. Then they spot the first monitor. It shows an overhead shot of themselves. Some jump startled. Others run back from whence they came. Still others twist and turn trying to find the hidden camera. We see some teenagers move from surprise to playfulness as they start to ham it up in the woods. All become more excited, speed up their pace, become noisier.

The tapes reveal that placing a camera in that environment dramatically changed the way people perceived the environment and their relationship to it.

In the presence of camcorders our behavior changes. Our perceptions of ourselves, and responses to all creatures great and small shift subtly. Multiply the effect a camcorder has at a wedding reception by the number of camcorders in the world. Try to see the ripples of this effect spreading into the future as millions of new camcorders appear each year. As they become increasingly visible, they institutionalize the shift. New levels of self-consciousness, perhaps flamboyance and perhaps cagey-ness, become permanent features of society’s psychological makeup. As we blend camcorders with our lives we change ourselves.

This is nothing new. Humanity has changed itself with the invention of every new technology. The control of fire, the invention of the wheel, that of the written word all have changed us permanently.

There has never been a way to “go back” to a previous sensory-behavioral balance, and there won’t be a way to go back to our pre-camcorder state. Like wearers of contact lenses, we feel the impact of a new technology when first we begin to use it. When the technology becomes invisible it has changed us indelibly.

Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.

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