To see, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues, is to palpate. It is akin to touch only capable of traversing great distances. I can only palpate with my hands those things in my immediate vicinity. But I can palpate things with my eyes that are tens, hundreds, thousands of feet away. It is odd that we might consider vision a cold sense, as if the spatial distance translated into a lack of affect or effect. How do I see something if my body is not touching it in some way? My eyes lay hold of it, take it up, weigh it, consider it, make sense of it in a way that’s different from, but akin to, what my hands do.
The digital camera and its extension — the interweb — is an extension of the eye, an amplification of its ability to palpate the world at great remove, across great distances. When we see an image, we may not have recourse to the other senses (although sound is a key aspect of the digital image) but the eyes are a quite powerful means of taking up the world. Imagine, for a moment, that rather than the eyes being extended, touch was and we could reach around the world with our hands and touch a person on the other side of the planet. Would we say the experience was mediated? Would we say the experience was not real? That it was “only” a grope? Why do we say this about seeing but not about touch?
When we interact in a chatroom with a woman in Romania; when we stare into the projected eyes of a stranger in Nova Scotia; when we discuss our deepest fears with a psychologist across town or across country: when we interact with these images, we move and are moved, literally. That is not a false encounter, a replica of an encounter. Nor is it a mediated encounter. It may not be the same as talking to someone standing next to you but the difference is not the difference between the immediate and the mediated, the real and the replica. Both are real. Both are at once immediate and mediated by our fears, memories, desires, language, eyeballs.
The point is this: the image is real, too, and makes for real encounters. Different than fleshy encounter but real nonetheless.
There’s a prevailing argument that this screen life, this image life, is alienating. Walk in a coffee shop, everyone’s on the computer. Wait at a bus stop, everyone’s looking down at a phone. Indeed, in the reviews of David Fincher's film, The Social Network, the most common comment was that the film articulates a great irony: a man with no friends creates a social network that’s supposed to be about friends. The implication is that Facebook friends are not really friends. Well, of course they’re not. A Facebook friend and a friend I see everyday, a friend I’ve grown up, are different things. Nobody every said they were the same thing. It turns out words have multiple uses depending on their context!
As for people looking down at their screens rather than each other standing at a bus stop, does this mean we are all alienated? Or might it mean we are connected to each other in ways that traverse immediate spatial vicinity? Everyday life turns in many ways who our neighbors are, on what’s happening directly in front of us. But this doesn’t mean we can’t also look down at our screens to see what others are doing across town, across country, across the globe.
Rather than looking at screen life as lacking something, as interfering with something, I’m suggesting we look at the communities it forges, the lives it makes. In many ways, screen life enmeshes the individual in multiple networks, in networks he or she might never have been a part of, to things and ideas and people he or she might never have known. The speed of the image reshapes and proliferates community.
And allows us to fold the world into a temporal origami. A friend in Thailand posts as he rises but we in California are fast asleep. I rise hours later, see the post, reply. There is, then, this very beautiful syncopated communication. Or, even better, this aparallel becoming, a moving with that is neither immediate nor mediated but that enjoys a strange temporality. We live in image time, in screen time.