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A Picture Of The Mona Lisa Is Not The Mona Lisa

Quick: think of a football game. Imagine the line of scrimmage, the offense and defense poised on either side. The quarterback takes the snap from center. He drops back. The linemen grapple. The quarterback steps into the pocket–and, just as the blocking deteriorates and the pocket collapses around him, rifles the ball downfield, into the chest of a crossing receiver.

Now stop and think: was what you imagined happening in person or on TV?

Maybe you go to a lot of football games. But most people see more football on TV than in real life. When you ask me to imagine the above scene, it’s invariably a TV image I see.

And a TV football game is not a real football game. Watching the game on TV is an experience very different from watching in person. Even watching on a gigantic screen with surround sound is not like being at the stadium.

This is a subject broached in Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Published in 1976, Mander’s book is still provocative, relevant, and a great read. His big premise is that television is irredeemable: we really shouldn’t be watching it at all.

That’s another topic for another day. What I’m interested in today is the idea of mediated reality–that is, reality that involves something standing between you and direct experience of the real world.

We take some mediation to be a good thing. I, for example, adore central heating and windshields. I might even contend that I like football better on TV than in person. I understand that I’m in my family room with a glass of zinfandel and a cat on my lap, and that no one is screaming in my ear or spilling beer on my coat. I’m fine with that.

But in this world in which so many of us have our heads buried in screens all day long, it’s important, every so often, to look up. It’s especially important as screens become even more pervasive parts of all of our lives. It’s easy, especially in winter, to be mediated constantly, for months on end: you walk out your back door, enter your heated garage, get into your heated car, walk a few feet into work. You work on your  computer all day, listen to radio in the car, watch TV at night. Read on your Kindle or iPad. Play Wii with the kids.  Check your phone first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening, and all day long. Allow e-mail to rule your life.

It’s also fair to ask what is unmediated reality in a world that’s so mediated. Books, after all, are media, as well. A picture of the Mona Lisa in a book is not the Mona Lisa. And not even the Mona Lisa is Mona Lisa herself.

But seeing the actual Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris is a direct experience of art. Reading–even on a screen–is a more interactive and tactile experience than watching TV.

How about playing Rock Band? It requires dexterity and rhythm and physicality. Even though it’s nothing like playing an actual instrument in an actual band on stage, you’re actually moving around in the real world, right? Isn’t that better than just being a passive receptor on the sofa?

How about instant messaging, or tweeting, or cruising Facebook? You’re hanging out, conversing with friends, right? You’re interacting–creating, in a way. How real is that?

I don’t know. I think technology brings a lot of good into our lives–including virtual experiences we’ll never get to have in the real world and friends in distant cities we may never meet in real life. I just think it’s important to remember that walking in the woods is not like seeing the woods on TV. A Guitar Hero guitar is not a real guitar. And that, every once in a while, it’s nice just to talk with each other face to face.

Photo: Andy Warhol’s Double Mona Lisa.

One thought on “A Picture Of The Mona Lisa Is Not The Mona Lisa

  1. Question: Aren’t we always, and I do mean always mediated to at least an extent? Our clothing is mediation, after a fashion, after all. Shoes mediate the reality of rough streets, broken sidewalks (themselves mediation of the ground below) and sharp twigs and rocks. That walk in the woods, while a far more real experience than watching the woods on a screen, still has a layer of mediation surrounding it.

    The question isn’t so much about the mediation itself, but the type and amount of it. After all, this conversation wouldn’t happen without the Internet and a couple of computers because of the distances involved between us.

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