SALT LAKE CITY — As protests began to devolve into vandalism in Salt Lake City and elsewhere last weekend, thousands assumed a unique 21st century pose — they stood erect with one arm raised to the sky holding a smartphone aloft.
George Orwell got it only half right. In “1984” he envisioned a future in which video technology was the friend only of oppressive governments, allowing them to keep constant tabs on everyone. But while phones can indeed invade privacy, and oppressive regimes use technology to control subjects, the momentum instead has been in favor of freedom, giving the masses an ability to record video in ways governments can’t control or explain away.
Any modern reader might suggest that Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, should turn on his phone when authorities close in, start a Facebook Live and let the world know what is happening to him.
Imagine a world in which police knelt on the neck of George Floyd, squeezing the life out of him, and no one had video proof. Imagine a world in which Ahmaud Arbery was indiscriminately shot while jogging in Georgia and no one was there to film it.
Actually, it’s not hard to imagine that one. No one was charged in the case until the video surfaced — further evidence of the power of amateur videography.
Imagine Rodney King without the video of him being beaten. For that matter, imagine the assassination of President John F. Kennedy if Abraham Zapruder had been just one of dozens recording every move.
Imagine how each of these has challenged assumptions and changed attitudes.
Nearly 160 years ago, photographer Matthew Brady began this photographic revolution by hauling heavy carts of photo chemicals, plates and cameras around Civil War battlefields, taking pictures of the bloody aftermath. He set in motion today’s world. Even in black and white, these images hit their mark.
In October 1862, the New York Times said Brady had effectively brought bodies from the war and “laid them in our dooryards and along the streets.”
“The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the dead at Antietam,” the Times said, “but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement. There would be a gathering up of skirts and a careful picking of way; conversation would be less lively, and the general air of pedestrians more subdued.”
Today, the bodies, the beaten and oppressed, the victims of disasters, and the disasters themselves — from fires to earthquakes to tsunamis and tornados — are regularly deposited on our dooryards and along our streets in graphic detail.
The question is, are our conversations less lively? Are we more subdued?
Or are we so awash in graphic images that this, too, has changed us?
Video from recent protests can be compiled to support whatever narrative one chooses. One scene from Salt Lake City shows a police officer knocking over an elderly man with a cane who stood along the side of the road, then subsequently helping him up. There are plenty of videos showing police treating people harshly, but there are just as many showing vandals overturning a police vehicle, breaking windows and screaming in the faces of officers.
Social media regularly feeds us images that have been altered to pretend to tell the truth, such as a photo from a television show that was used a few days ago to convince people Washington landmarks were ablaze and the mainstream media was ignoring it.
One of the great untruths, of course, is that photos never lie. Context, point of view and editing still matter. But so does the sheer volume of cameras being held aloft in a 21st century pose.
A photo may lie, but hundreds of them taken at once can’t escape the truth.
Combine smartphones with nearly omnipresent security cameras, and you neutralize a scoundrel’s best friend: darkness. For centuries, the poor and disadvantaged were left with their word when it came to reporting abuses, and their word was generally considered less credible than the word of those in privileged positions.
Yes, this is a generation jaded by never-ending images, and often fooled by clever editing. Yes, we are saturated by things that would have shocked our ancestors.
But thank goodness we are not beyond feeling when real brutality is laid on our dooryards.