Guns, Cameras, and Consciousness

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We know that railroads once changed people's perception of speed. Historians record that humans had to learn to look at the landscape, instead of trying to focus on the foreground. Atlantic co-founder, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote, "What new thoughts are suggested by seeing a face of country quiet familiar in the rapid movement of the railroad car." In that very big way, new technological experience forced people to recalibrate their minds. But it's happening in smaller ways, and with smaller objects, all the time.

I read Harper's August 2010 cover story, "Happiness Is a Worn Gun," with this in mind. Author Dan Baum, a long-time gun enthusiast, begins carrying a concealed weapon. The story comes to be about how carrying that very special gadget, the gun, changes your consciousness of where you are.

First, he introduces into the quiet useful hierarchy of consciousness used in concealed weapon training courses.

Condition White is total oblivion to one's surroundings -- sleeping, being drunk or stoned, losing oneself in conversation while walking on city streets, texting while listening to an iPod. Condition Yellow is being aware of, and taking an interest in, one's surroundings--essentially, the mental state we are encouraged to achieve when we are driving: keeping our eyes moving, checking the mirrors, being careful not to let the radio drown out the sounds around us.

When he's packing heat, "there's no way to lapse into Condition White." Instead, "the revolver's weight and pressure keep me constantly aware of how quickly and utterly my world could change."

The way Baum sees it, there's nothing quite wrong with the vigilance his dangerous gun induces, but he does conclude that a society full of people with guns would be a different society indeed. "Condition White may make us sheep, but it's also where art happens. It's where we daydream, reminisce, and hear music in our heads," he writes. "Hardcore gun carriers want no part of that, and the zeal for getting everybody to carry a gun may be as much an anti-Condition White movement as anything else."

Perhaps the gun makes this experience seem exotic, but I don't think it is. Consider my recent experience with a new camera, the Canon G11. If a concealed weapon induces Condition Yellow, a great, lightweight digital camera turns on your Condition White switch. It slows me down, keeps me looking at things in hopes of finding something spectacular to capture. I  pay a lot more attention to the good light out there, too.

So, for all the sharpness Baum says the concealed weapon gives you, I'll take the G11. 

Image: auraelius/flickr

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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