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The iPhone’s Many Narratives

A thousand pictures are worth how many words?
December 17, 2011

When Steve Jobs died, I called attention to the various senses in which he was a great storyteller, and had enabled his customers in turn to tell stories in their own way.

Writing for the Culture Desk of the New Yorker, Caleb Cain points to the far-reaching effects of the iPhone as a storytelling device in the era of the Occupy and other protest movements.

Fittingly, Cain begins with a story of his own:

“Don’t treat me like an idiot,” a young man in a black parka said to a police officer in Zuccotti Park, on the evening of the day after the police had cleared it. The officer, identified by the yellow letters on his jacket as a member of the N.Y.P.D.’s community-affairs team, was telling people that it wasn’t safe to sit on the ledge of a granite planter, but the young man didn’t want to get down. “I can’t believe you’re saying this to me in the United States of America,” the young man continued. The risk seemed minimal, and he believed he had the right to take it. As people became aware of the exchange, video cameras, smart phones, and S.L.R.s swiveled.

The police officer, after a brief attempt at a stern manner, relented.

Cain seems to suggest here causation between the swivel of recording gadgetry and the police officer’s decision to stand down. (Not always the case, however: a reporter friend of mine recorded his own arrest several weeks ago.)

Those in power or positions of authority are often those who are able to control the narrative of an encounter; it’s a variant on the old adage about history being written by the winners. Cain’s point, though, is that technology has disrupted who controls the story. History is written by everyone with a camera phone, now–which is another way of saying that’s written by just about anyone.

Cain refers to an 18th-century anarchist named William Godwin who envisioned a future when–by some means–”[e]veryone would be his own narrator.” Something like that day has arrived.

As in so much techno-cultural criticism, the humorists got here first. Years ago, the satirical Onion News Network “reported” on a fire that had been ruled as an arson, before investigators combed through “40,000 Insipid Party Pics” to determine the fire’s actual cause–an accidentally dropped cigarette in the midst of a bumping NYU fête. As the fake source said in the fake (and slightly NSFW) news report: “Well, after examining the evidence from the 25 iPhones, 15 BlackBerrys, 10 video cameras, and 40 digital cameras obtained from the students who attended the party, we were able to reconstruct every second of the event.”

With photographic imagery so ubiquitous today, the problems become very different from before. We must determine photographs’ origins, confirm their authenticity, ensure they haven’t been manipulated, and so on. (The Atlantic explored some of these issue in an interesting piece during the Arab Spring.) Mostly, though, finding the narrative has become a problem of scale. The iPhone and its brethren have enabled a surfeit of storytelling, in fact; the challenge becomes to distill narrative from the reams of data. With decentralization comes noise; better though, to have a thousand small truths than a single authoritative lie.

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