January 06, 2015

Smart Phones and Postmodern Theory

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

I have been to several concerts within the past year and have noticed that there are always at least a few people who use their phones to take videos during the concert, even if there is an explicit “no photography” rule in effect.

For audience members, these video-takers are very distracting. They are holding up a lighted object, often partly blocking the views of those behind them. From the perspective of the performers, not only can they be distracting, but for those who don’t want unauthorized images or videos of their work posted online, there can be copyright issues to consider.

At a recent show, I saw at least two people taking videos in my immediate vicinity, despite being told that all cell phones must be turned off so they would not interfere with the electrical equipment at the tiny venue (maximum capacity 155). It’s hard not to look at a smart phone while it’s taking a video right in front of you in a darkened room. At this concert, the “videographer” was zooming in and out of the stage, and shaking the phone to add his own effects to the music. It created a blurry, shaking, pulsating light in front of me.

We were no more than 30 feet from the stage, but through the phone it looked like we were about 300 feet away. Why would someone rather watch a concert on a tiny device that shrunk down and blurred the scene, rather than just looking straight ahead?

For many people, documenting their experiences for posting on social media sites has become so familiar they might not consider not taking a picture or video at an exciting moment. Experiencing an unmediated life moment might even make them feel empty.

French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote about the endless reproduction of images as a central feature of our mediated age. In his book, Simulations, Baudrillard discusses hyperreality, or a state where the image and its reproduction merge and become indistinguishable from one another. “It is no longer a question of imitation or of reproduction, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself,” he notes on page 4. Signs of the real—a blurry video of concert footage—becomes substituted for the concert itself, not as a means of reproducing it for later but as a source of pleasure in its own right.

Simulations was published in 1983, well before the widespread use of the Internet and the invention of smart phones, but its key ideas are eerily prophetic. “Each is already technically in possession of the instantaneous reproduction of his own life,” he writes (p. 149). The instantaneous reproduction of our lives has become a central focus for many of those unable to enjoy a good meal before sharing a picture of their plate on Instagram or any mundane thought via Twitter.

Baudrillard was not decrying the existence of hyperreality, but instead describing what he saw as an inevitable part of the postmodern condition, a shift in human history as we pass from an industrial-based society focused on manufacturing to one focused on consumption. We consume more than just stuff, but the symbolism equated with that stuff (the brand of clothes we wear—or won’t wear—for instance, or the symbolism of driving one car over another). The symbolic nature of an object, and the endless reproduction of meaning created by symbols, simulates meaning in a way that is more important than any objective reality unto itself, according to postmodern thought. A high-end luxury car might not be well made and may require expensive repairs, but this doesn’t detract from its meaning as a high-end, if temperamental, object of desire.

What does this teach us about the concertgoers who take pleasure in the grainy video, perhaps even more than listening to the music in the moment?

Applying ideas from Simulations, the distinction between the live concert and the video disappears, as the video provides a simulation of live experience that is pleasurable in itself. To have captured a “bootleg” video suggests authenticity, which the observer can enjoy. The video takes on meaning beyond the concert itself; it suggests that its creator attended a live concert, perhaps symbolizing to future viewers that “this guy does really cool stuff like going to concerts,” a meaning the videographer might find satisfying…maybe even more satisfying than the concert itself.

Baudrillard’s ideas can help us understand a great deal about social media, even though he died in 2007 and to my knowledge did not write specifically about social media or smart phones. The ability for nearly anyone to take and share images virtually instantaneously reflects his notion of hyperreality, where the meaning of the “real” and the “reproduction” become fused. For Baudrillard this isn’t a bad thing, but it can be annoying at a concert.


"What does this teach us about the concertgoers who take pleasure in the grainy video, perhaps even more than listening to the music in the moment?": don't you think that is quite a heedless assumption that those who are recording are therefore not listening to the music?

Very interesting essay Dr. Sternheimer. We live in an era that should be of incredible importance to social scientists. At no point in human history have we been able to capture and share experiences with others at lighting speed and with a worldwide audience. We are now able to manipulate our "presentation of self" (selfies, blogs etc) and we are also vulnerable to others presentation of ourselves (tagging and posting pictures or descriptions of someone without their consent). This technology is having an amazing effect on interaction and all forms of communication.

This is another "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times moments". The information and advancements are invaluable and potentially a great asset. I find it incredible how many things are "caught" on video which can be helpful in crimes or accidents...hopefully it saves lives as well.
But I also see the younger generation losing important social and communication skills, even empathy when they will send a break up text or snide text or email about someone that if they had to be face to face it would be such a different experience. I have to agree with living in the moment and having true memories and not just videos to judge whether or not an event was successful.

Baudrillard did indeed eerily predict the use and effects of social media. I know exactly what you are saying with the hyperreality fusion because I do at times find myself remembering an event through the pictures taken that I may look at today. I also find extremely interesting the concept of being able to reproduce our own lives and display them in any way we please. I could trick my grandchildren into thinking I was a tap dancer every day of my life if I only took pictures of me tap dancing. I've read articles before about Facebook making people depressed because they are just looking at pictures of happy people and wondering why they aren't as happy. I also know of a few "instagrammers" whom seemingly put on a persona of make-up and upload videos of specific activities, but how often do they really look like this or do these things in "real" life? I also wonder how often people pressure themselves into doing specific things and recording them just for the factor of seeming like interesting people when they upload said videos to social media.

I am happy that I found your website! Many fascinating articles.

great content, thanks for sharing

The question of authenticity in the digital age is indeed complex, and Baudrillard's insights provide a compelling framework for understanding these behaviors. It would be interesting to see how such a concept could be translated into an app format, one that respects the boundaries of copyright laws, personal experience, and communal respect. Given the ubiquitous nature of smartphones, the development of such an application would indeed be pertinent across both Android and iPhone platforms

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