Outsourcing Our Senses

My cable modem recently decided it had worked long enough so it passed quietly into the world of expired electronics. Once I realized it may have passed on for good, I called my ISP and they sent a technician to declare it so. As he swapped one box for another, he held the new one up to me and told me to take a picture of the back to get the default network name and password so I would be able to use the wifi. It struck me that such a statement would never have occurred 20 years ago. Not only did we not have wifi, but we didn’t have smartphones and digital photography wasn’t widespread. In such a situation, I would have needed a pen and a piece of paper to record the information.

This is but one example of the way digital photography has changed the way we function. Our ability to capture and recall is replacing our other methods of remembering and retrieving. This is certainly not a new observation, but it does give me reason for reflection. The ability to capture images raises a moral question. Actually, it probably raises many, but I will focus on one. What does it mean to have seen something?

I am a birder. I enjoy watching birds and part of the “game” is to keep lists. Most notably, a life list—a record of every species seen in my lifetime. There are generally agreed upon rules as to what is countable and the rules have been updated to account for some of our changes in technology. Webcams are now specifically addressed, for instance.

I often take my camera with me when I’m birding, which serves two functions. First, since I like birds, I enjoy taking pictures of them. I like to have pictures to commemorate seeing unusual species or even to capture a pleasing shot of a more common species. Second, there are some conditions in which I may see a bird without being able to distinguish what kind of bird it is. Taking multiple pictures of it for later examination can allow the discernment of key field marks that may lead to a positive identification. These uses are within the rules of the game. But, there is an entry on my life list that is questionable.

The picture above, taken off the coast of Maine four years ago, shows a Razorbill, a Black Guillemot, and a group of four Purple Sandpipers. When I took the picture, I was shooting the Razorbill and Guillemot. I did not discover the Purple Sandpipers until I was home sorting through my pictures. This raises the question, “Did I see them?”

In one sense, I obviously did. They were within the confines of my viewfinder on my camera. I was looking through it to frame the shot of the other two birds. The light reflecting off of them passed into my camera, was digitized and displayed on my viewfinder, just as it was for the two birds on the left.

But, I did not notice them. The picture above is cropped and zoomed and I was a few hundred yards away on a boat. There were lots of birds to be seen, and this small, camouflaged foursome stayed below my level of conscious perception. It was only after the fact that I discovered that these birds had apparently passed before my eyes.

To add to the weight of the dilemma, that day in May 2012 is the only time I have “seen” Purple Sandpipers. To declare them as not counting would take them off of my life list. It is akin to having a point taken away in sports after review. Not something one gladly acquiesces to.

As cameras continue to have higher and higher resolutions, this becomes more of an issue. Can I just drive through the country, snapping pictures as I go, and later examine them to glean any avian life I may have captured? This seems beyond the pale to me.

My best hope for resolution is that I will one day again see Purple Sandpipers. Then I will have an unquestionable entry on my life list. Until they, they remain on my list, but with a bit of doubt clinging to their place.

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One response to “Outsourcing Our Senses

  1. Pingback: Outsourcing Our Senses | Fifth Day

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