The Fascination of What’s Digital

November 21, 2010 at 8:06 am (By Amba)

I will slowly get around to writing about the cataclysm that’s hit my world.  Can’t get words around it, may be able to pick a few paths of a few steps through it here and there before they falter out like the footprints of the settlers of some vanished colony.  There will be a lot of false starts.

But meanwhile . . .

I spent all day with friends yesterday (a disorientingly novel experience in itself).  In between sitting in an outdoor hot tub and walking in the woods on the path of an old NASCAR raceway, we watched part of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth on hi-def, flat-panel TV.  I was duly impressed, but also disturbed.

It is so awesomely, breathtakingly beautiful, this Earth of ours — too beautiful.  Mountain peaks are impossibly pristine, airbrushed of blemishes; polar bears are bowdlerized of their fleas; autumn hillsides change color with the orchestrated precision of The Wave in the Superdome, or a flashcard display by Communist Chinese kiddies — all in obedience to the wand of digital totalitarianism.

The implicit message:  digital is better than real.  Man trumps Nature.  Mother Earth needs a facelift and silicone falsies.

There is a connection between this triumph-disguised-as-tribute over nature and 15-year-olds getting nose jobs as quinceañeras presents, boob jobs for Sweet Sixteen.

Our experience of nature is always mediated and manipulated by art — I realized that when, writing the introduction to a book of Thomas McKnight’s paintings, I was struck by the insight that what we remember as our intense, naïve, direct early-childhood perception of the world is in fact already powerfully shaped by art in the form of children’s-book illustrations.  All my life, for example, I have appreciated the beauty of the woods through the filter of Walt Disney’s BambiSeriously.  And as for women’s beauty, is it really such a big step, other than technologically, from plucking your eyebrows to boosting your boobs?

But have our powers to imagine and manipulate become Faustian?  Do the digital wonders of Planet Earth enhance, or demean and diminish, the actual experience of living on Planet Earth?  To steal a page from W.B. Yeats:

The fascination of what’s digital
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. . . .


  1. reader_iam said,

    Good morning, Annie. Thinking of you… .

  2. Ron said,

    a cri de decolettage, I admit, was not what I was expecting here…but that’s why this is such an excellent blog.

    If you need to become an arsonist at some point…go back to that Bambi reference also….

    Our minds and hearts that are unhappy with the world the way it is…are those organs part of the world too? Somewhere there’s a gene for “not this — more!”

  3. Icepick said,

    But have our powers to imagine and manipulate become Faustian?

    Yes. We’re all wizards now, and Merlin was a piker beside our powers.

    Do the digital wonders of Planet Earth enhance, or demean and diminish, the actual experience of living on Planet Earth?


    But they do bring them to our domiciles. The time lapse of the autumn trees speeds things up. But the condensed experience also isn’t the one that slowly seeps into one’s unconsciousness. The polar bears don’t have flees, but then I was’t planning on keeping one as a pet anyway. (And I believe in one episode we see a starving polar bear attack a bull walrus to no effect. The bear is wounded, and starving to death, and will die soon.)

  4. Beth said,

    Hello Amba, I was thinking of you last night and glad to see you posting this morning.

    My image of Europe has and ever will be filtered through the matte backgrounds – the slate roofs and garrets of Paris – of The Aristocats.

  5. wj said,

    Do the digital wonders of Planet Earth enhance, or demean and diminish, the actual experience of living on Planet Earth?

    I would say rather that the digital wonders of the world do not impact the actual experience of the Earth, for better or for worse. Rather they broaden that experience. We can still appreciate the real world as we always have. But we can also appreciate parts of the real world that we otherwise might never have a chance to experience first hand. And even experience things that are not part of any real world at all.

  6. michael reynolds said,

    Even all that digital beauty still only suggests the effect of the real thing. After all, the bear may have fleas we don’t see, but the breeze also carries scents we don’t smell, and the picture can’t really convey the way the cold raises goosebumps, or the crunch of snow under our boots. Maybe all those digits just compensate to some small degree for our inability to convey more.

  7. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Somewhere there’s a gene for “not this — more!”

    The driving force behind human evolution. Of course, it could drive us right off a cliff. It’s mostly that the parts don’t keep pace with each other . . .

  8. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Years ago when I lived in Durham I had my first extensive experience with hypnosis, which taught me something I’d heard but not believed from my Buddhist teachers: we always mediate and modulate our perceptions by our thoughts.

    The trick is to notice it when it’s not digital.

  9. amba12 said,

    Maybe all those digits just compensate to some small degree for our inability to convey more.

    They certainly are almost exclusively visual — hyper-visual. You’re right. They can’t convey (even with Dolby) the 360-degree surround sound of being in</i< one of those landscapes, much less the feel and the smells. It's out there that our senses evolved, and they are still evoked in a more rich and subtle way by the real thing(s) than by digital dazzle.

    We were both indoors watching the hi-def video, and out in the woods taking a walk.

  10. A said,

    The ancient urges to groom, decorate, adorn, idealize, put through the filters of current technology.

    I haven’t been keeping up with the art world, so I don’t know if there are any hi-def
    landscape artists who see in a way that is comparable to, say, Lucian Freud’s painterly view of the landscape of the body.

    I wonder if any of the girls who get the sweet sixteen boob jobs will go on to the new dietary fad described in the New Yorker: eating “high” (raw, rotten) meat. While staring at virtual reality.

  11. reakpc said,

    Without feeling and breathing the air, most of the spiritual impression of a location is missing. I love the change of seasons, here in the northeast, and I would never feel that from just pictures. So many Americans spend all their time inside climate-controlled environments, and that just deadens the soul. We should be sleeping out under the stars, even in winter.

  12. Icepick said,

    But we can also appreciate parts of the real world that we otherwise might never have a chance to experience first hand.

    I’ll add something to this. Not only do I get to see places I wouldn’t otherwise get to visit, I get to see places I don’t want to visit. And I just don’t mean because the places are unpleasant – I don’t want to visit some (many) of these places because I don’t want my tourist traffic to destroy the local environs.

  13. karen said,

    Ive never viewed hi-def, never cared for manicured lawns stoned on chemicals(& couldn’t, anyway- as we’re organic).

    I really can’t relate to the need to even want to see the landscape any differently than even the current ~Stick Season~ we are now experiencing- in patient wait for the arrival of snow up here in the Kingdom. Maybe i just don’t get it. Nothing is more beautiful that a newborn calf nestled in her hiding place somewhere in the pasture w/her mom close by. Pink nose- pure white hair and feet still soft from amniotic fluid– priceless.

    The cowplops, burdocks and possibility of flies are a given in my world. I thought they were in everyone’s:0).

    Does anyone else know of the art of Franz Marc?

  14. A said,

    “feet still soft from amniotic fluid”

    What a touching detail, a tender something I never knew….

  15. Icepick said,

    These artificial media do have some advantages – they can show us things our senses could never detect. Here’s a time lapse picture of a mountain in the Himilayas – even if you had been there that night you would have never seen this.

    And no, I don’t consider this an enhancement, just a different perspective.

  16. amba12 said,

    I do know Franz Marc – – -at least “Blue Horses.”

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