Off the beat: Share every second

“The miraculous is everywhere … in our homes, in our minds,” a recent Sprint commercial circling the airwaves begins.

The statement is made in a tone of awe by a deep-voiced male narrator while a series of images cut in after each other in rapid succession: hugely magnified blood cells rushing through veins, an extreme close-up on the perfect organization of a leaf, a satellite image of the Earth with lights connected across its surface in lines, a neon map on an iPhone screen, the lit-up power grid of a city at night, a neural network.

The miraculous, we are meant to understand, lies in the way that all of these images are connected, the way that the most basic elements of humans closely resemble those of plants, the way that same grid shows up in city planning and across the entire globe — “in our homes, in our minds.” Connectedness, the commercial tells us, is miraculous. The advertisement is meant to pitch Sprint’s unlimited data package for the iPhone 5.

“We can share every second in data dressed as pixels,” the commercial’s narrator goes on. “A billion roaming photojournalists, uploading the human experience.”

Having an iPhone 5 on Sprint’s unlimited plan, we are to understand, means that we are also unlimited. Selling that message makes a lot of sense for a cellphone company. It means that if we get Sprint, our particular “human experience” is no longer bounded by the limits of being a single human being. With unlimited data, we can “share every second”; we never have to be alone. We become, very clearly, part of the “miraculous” network.

This rhetoric is fairly blatant, and that blatancy makes it easy to see through. We are aware that our relationships have much more to do with how connected we feel than our phone plan. But there’s something else going on in the commercial that I don’t think we’re as good at seeing through.

When the announcer tells us that we can “share every second in data dressed as pixels,” his words accompany the image of a boy running toward his mother. The child’s movement is frozen at various points in the shot between his beginning and end point, as though “every second” has been made individual, as it is in photographs. Once the child arrives in his mother’s open embrace, we zoom into a close-up on the mother’s face, which immediately takes on a pixelated appearance, literalizing “data dressed as pixels.”

The image, which ends with a jarringly close look at the mother’s now-inhuman eye, really disturbs me. And even more than the image, what disturbs me is how much we all seem to believe in what it’s saying — something much subtler than the easy-to-dismiss idea of being unlimited.

When the boy’s movement is broken into photographic freezes and the mother’s face is pixelated, it’s a perfect representation of what happens when moments are compartmentalized into the kind of material that lends itself to being uploaded. It is the visual equivalent of pithy status updates, freeze-frame party photos and perfectly-engineered Tumblr posts.

The idea of “upload(ing) the human experience” is frightening to me. The “human experience” transitions from being something we live to something we observe. We are no longer actors in the human saga — we are “a billion roaming photojournalists” reporting on it with feigned objectivity.

If we are photojournalists, then we are storytellers, practitioners of a craft which relies on the creation of narratives. We fill our Facebooks with carefully curated narratives in which we are simultaneously fantastically interesting and completely uninterested in whether anyone realizes it.

Like the frozen boy, these narratives are reassuring because they are, in appearance at least, permanent. There is a perfection in that permanence. The lovely glow on an Instagram photo I post to Facebook won’t fade like the lovely glow in my head might if future experiences influence the way I look at past ones.

My Facebook is no longer a “wall,” no longer a place for my friends to pin posts that are conscious of being constructed objects. It is a “timeline” that dates all the way back to my birth, chronicling my “human experience” with a clean minimalism.

“I need to upload all of me,” the commercial’s narrator concludes. “I need, no, I have the right to be unlimited.”

Around this time last semester, I wrote a column about why writing was so important to me. “I write because I am a narcissist and want to believe that the most profound experiences of my life will not disappear entirely when I do,” I wrote then.

I don’t like that idea anymore. I don’t like the idea that we must constantly chronicle our experiences for them to have been significant. I don’t want to feel like “I need to upload all of me” to be certain I exist. I know that I exist, and a couple of other people do too. And that feels more connected than any kind of unlimited.

Contact Sarah Burns at [email protected].