x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Growing up with a digital second life

A toddler experimenting with a digital camera underlines the extent to which we all have complete 'digital ideas of ourselves'.

A budding Eve Arnold on assignment, Astrid prowls around the room. Camera raised, trigger-finger poised, she eyes the rapidly changing image on the screen. The lens struggles to focus as the camera roves around. Suddenly, Astrid stops and presses the button. The blurred image sharpens and with a click (generated by a digital recording, not the sound of moving parts and mechanisms), a photograph is taken.

Astrid presses a button on the back of the camera, which switches it from record to playback. She looks at the photograph. It's not very good. It looks like it's been taken by a five-year-old, you might say, which would be high praise since Astrid is just shy of 19 months. The image is crooked and a tad out of focus. It's difficult to make out the subject: the top of a chair, the end of a table, a book, a plastic horse, a bean bag perhaps. Nevertheless, I find it remarkable that she has taken it at all.

Astrid turns the jog wheel with her finger, flicking rapidly through the rest of the photographs on the camera. I haven't had a chance to upload the images taken during our recent trip to Jordan and the memory card is crammed with family snapshots against a backdrop of hot and dusty ruins. It's a rapid-fire photo montage, a sequence as quick and unrelenting as the spray of bullets from a machine gun.

Every time she comes to an image with herself in it though, she stops and pats herself on the chest. Every time she arrives at an image with me in it, she stops and hits me on the back. Less than two years into her life, Astrid's vision of the world, her way of seeing herself and other people, is already profoundly influenced by this medium.

"As vision developed towards the Kodak," wrote DH Lawrence in an essay called Art and Morality, "man's idea of himself developed towards the snapshot. Primitive man simply didn't know what he was: he was always half in the dark. But we have learned to see, and each of us has a complete Kodak idea of himself."

When he wrote that essay in 1925, this observation might have seemed a bit strange and visionary, but the claim turned out to be so accurate that any profundity has since turned to triteness. Kodak went digital for the most part in 2004. Moving with the times, updating Lawrence's statement to take such developments in technology into account, it becomes: each of us has a complete digital idea of himself.

This sentence is spot on. The digital idea of oneself, a second life composed solely of bits and bytes, has become as prevalent as the Kodak one was in the years following 1925. Photography still dominates, albeit in digital form, but these images have been supplemented by a torrent of words, videos and actions.

More and more, these digital versions are taking on a life of their own. The still-active Facebook accounts of the recently deceased, for example, which live on as digital ghosts, are far more spooky than any crumpled old photograph of a dead loved one.

Looking forward, much less in the future than Lawrence's essay is now in the past, these digital versions of oneself will become increasingly elaborate. By 2050, you will be able to download your consciousness to a machine. If such developments move beyond the concoctions of science fiction writers, then Lawrence's statement will need updating again: the complete digital idea of oneself will, in fact, become a reality.