To hear the subjects talk about it, you'd think they'd discovered a new law of physics. Shocking as it might seem, it turns out that if you're not live-blogging or tweeting or reporting on an event as it unfolds--and you know that nobody is going to quote you or write about the event after the fact--you act and experience an event quite differently. "You actually listen to the conversation, not just wait for your turn to speak," marveled a blogger who, the New York Times reported in a recent article, has begun organizing strictly off-the-record gatherings in New York.
The difference between reporting an event (or performing for reporters) and simply experiencing an event or conversation is one journalists learn very early. Twenty years ago, when I got my first job as an aviation journalist and was assigned to cover air shows, my pilot friends were green with envy. I was going to get paid for what they'd do for free. But reporting on an event is very, very different from simply experiencing it. It turns you from a participant into an observer. You have to step back and gauge what facts are the most important to gather; what story line you're going to pursue. The same is true for photographers. The eye of a photographer is an analytical one; judging the best angle, best light, best focal length in a world reduced to whatever narrow slice is visible through a view-finder. Real-time impressions and emotion are sacrificed for a lasting, illustrative image. There is a cost to recording an event; a cost paid in removal from full immersion or enjoyment of the moment as it actually happens.
By the same token, there's a night-and-day difference between a public versus a private conversation. Any journalist, spokesperson or politician could tell you that. So could anyone who has spent much time watching cable television pundits talk past each other in mind-numbing diatribes sparked by the presence of cameras and their attendant promise of publicity and notoriety.
But it used to be that only certain professionals understood, or had to struggle with, the downsides of either recording events, or being the subject of a recorded event. Now, almost everyone is getting a taste of it, thanks to the prolific spread of blogging, Facebook, twitter and other mass publication vehicles. And--thanks God, as my Italian neighbors would say--some of them are beginning to realize that the sword has two sides. That perhaps not everything has to be, or even should be, transmitted instantly into the universal, public realm.
There are many things to applaud about a world where more people can have voices and communication among groups is easier. Twitter proved an invaluable tool in aiding the protesters in Iran with regards to public gatherings and police movements. And the mass proliferation of blogs reminds me, at least in some ways, of the dawning of the cable television era, when niche groups suddenly found programming targeted specifically to them.
There's also nothing inherently evil about any of the new communication methods or technologies. But most advances come with some kind of tradeoff, and anything used to excess begins to be problematic--as some people are beginning to find out with an all-shared, all-the-time, lifestyle. One clear issue is preservation of privacy--especially for those who didn't volunteer to be part of a global chat-room. But living a reported life 24 hours a day also has a cost, not only in terms of the type and quality of the interactions and conversations it allows, but also in terms of how present the reporters are in any given moment.
It's possible to both experience and report an event, but not instantaneously or simultaneously. When I had an assignment to fly a a U-2 spy plane last fall, high enough to see the curvature of the earth, I got so preoccupied with taking photos and notes that I realized, part-way through the flight, that I wasn't actually experiencing any of it with any real depth. And to write anything of substance, I needed to first experience something of substance. So I turned off my intercom microphone, put the camera down, and just sat for a while. Looked out the window. Focused on what my senses were experiencing. Let my mind wander and my eyes drink in my surroundings. And in the richness of that silence, impressions softly bloomed. Of how fragile the world's atmosphere appeared. How being that high above the earth felt as if we were surreptitious invaders at the edge of a foreign realm ruled by powerful titans who needed no heat, air pressure or oxygen to survive. Of how lonely even a beautiful planet would be without anyone to welcome you home again.
And even those thoughts, put so cleanly into words here, took time to process and ferment, once I came back to earth.
New technology is all well and good. But the fact remains that it's tough to talk and listen at the same time, or be connected to an outside audience (even that of posterity) and still be fully immersed in the place, time, and dynamic of where you are. And that's a long-standing law of physics--or at least of human neuroscience and psychology--that I doubt any new technology is likely to overcome.