As media technology proliferates, history becomes easier to record and historical documents easier to access. Breaking news is now harder to avoid than find. Anyone with an internet connection (which more and more anyone) can relive and experience the breaking news of 25 years ago. As media continues to develop and surround us, the idea of an "event" becomes less and less connected to time, place, and perhaps the serendipity associated with witnessing it. In this passage, Mitchell discusses this phenomenon in context of 9/11, 2001.

In speech, the shift of reference from present to past events is signaled by tense; "I am walking down Grafton Street" becomes "I was walking down Grafton Street." But video doesn't have participles. So, there is no perceptible difference in the image when a delay is introduced into the transmission of a video signal; the instant replay of a football play looks exactly the same as the live transmission you saw a moment ago. There is simply an unmarked tense drift.

When the hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center towers on September 11, the moment was captured on video. For hours afterward, in a kind of pornography of explosive violence, the clips were replayed over and over again. On screen, it was hard to tell the difference between the identical towers, and tense drift added another layer of nightmarish ambiguity. As growing numbers of people, around the world, tuned in to these images on their television and computer screens, it often wasn't clear to them whether they were watching events in real time or replays. As the broadcasts cut back and forth between live and recorded images of the same unfolding scene, this tragedy drifted away from the classical unities.

In Manhattan, apartment dwellers simultaneously saw the smoke framed by their television screens and by their windows. Banks of screens in electronics stores flashed the scene in Warholesque multiples. The LEDs in Times Square brought Downtown to Midtown. In the darkened Postmasters Gallery, Wolfgang Staehle's live-feed video projection of the Lower Manhattan skyline (which had opened on September 6) sliced the unfolding chaos into a sequence of eerily silent, luminous landscape stills. And, in a suddenly sinister way, Staehle's successive stills recalled a Photoshop demo; duplicate, erase, paint in some sky effects, eventually substitute something else.

Discussion Questions

1. Do the multiplicity, accessibility, and eternal nature of historical documents today allow for us form more objective opinions because our experience of history becomes more direct (for example, watching the Rodney King beatings on tape as opposed to hearing a story about it)?

2. Or does the evolving form of historical documents allow for more skewed perceptions of events? After all, media technology enables subtler manipulation of documents. While we know to take a story someone tells us with a grain of salt, we are, at least for now, more trusting of digital recounts of events.

3. Does the nature of historical documents today make actually witnessing events lose its magic, seeing as someone in Texas can virtually experience the same visuals of the collapsing towers as an on-looking New Yorker?

4. Or does the nature of historical documents today heighten the magic associated with witnessing an event, considering that completely direct experience is now drastically the exception? Does the rarity of reality increase its seeming value?


Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Course Website cyborg Body & Self Me++

Last modified 15 September 2006