What if a Camera Could Document Your Entire Life?

Documenting your entire existence might turn out to be useful for future historians, but it's a somewhat unnerving hobby. The processes started by Myspace, then Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and YouPorn, ever more aided by technologies like the iPhone, perhaps reach their consummation in Memoto: a wearable camera, clipped to clothes or worn as jewellery, able to record practically every detail of the wearer's life, linked via the internet for instant public self-presentation.

Memoto is merely a reductio ad absurdum of something that has been continuing for some time: the extension of media production so that something that was once tightly controlled by conglomerates is now produced en masse by millions of people. As we concentrate on the worrying results of this, we forget that we are seeing the fulfilment of a dream that leftwing media theorists have had since the 1920s. They imagined that when media – text, photo, film, radio – was able to be produced by many rather than few, huge political changes could be possible. Does the relentless narcissism of something like Memoto prove them wrong?

So far, the media careers thrown up by the new, apparently more accessible technologies, seem oddly similar to the old. The rise of, say, Lena Dunham is exemplary: make knowingly narcissistic, self-documenting work about a life of extreme privilege via cheap technologies and the decentralised internet, get lucrative contracts with the older, more centralised media of film and television as a result. The same old people, the same old voices, the same old lives are sold to us via technologies that should in theory be able to provide a voice for the voiceless.

However, the theorists of emancipation through media wouldn't have been altogether surprised by that. One of the first of them, Bertolt Brecht, wrote ruefully of how, in the 1920s, the big film studios filmed palaces and spectacles with "an apparatus that a man could slip comfortably into a backpack".

In a series of visionary essays in the 1920s and 30s, the Marxist playwright claimed that the camera, the film camera and the radio transmitter meant that the masses could produce their own media. Given that there was no technological reason why radio should be centralised, why not democratise it? "Radio must organise exchange. It must transform the reports of those who govern into responses to the questions of those who govern."

In the Soviet Union at the same time, "two-way newspapers" in factories, claimed Brecht's friend Sergei Tretiakov, were doing just this. In both countries, the "worker photography" movement was bringing working conditions and ordinary lives to prominence, and were featured regularly in the mass-circulation German communist weekly Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, due to its enthusiastic take-up by the Comintern's media mogul, Willi Münzenberg. Those who advocated the comprehensive documentation of everyday life did so because they wanted to comprehensively transform it.

In the 1960s, by then mostly forgotten, their ideas were revived by poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who claimed that the common technologies of that decade – photocopiers, tape recorders, portable cameras, pirate radio – were a democratising force that could and should be used by socialists, as opposed to the antiquated and centralised media of reports, party newspapers and tracts.

He did, however, point out that these new media, though decentralised in form, had their hardware centrally produced by large corporations; and if not organised, the technologies lent themselves to the inconsequential: the obsessive self-documentation of conceptual art, for instance, is "based on the banal and false conclusion that the development of the productive forces renders all work superfluous". Like the conceptual art of the 70s, the new technologies take something potentially collective and make it individualistic – note all the "I"s, "my"s and "me"s in the names of the new software and hardware.

Nonetheless, Brecht, Tretiakov or Enzensberger would have seen the technologies of today as a consummate fulfilment of their prophecies – even, probably, Memoto. "Each receiver is a potential transmitter", wrote Enzensberger, and so it is. They would have relished, for instance, the way that the cameraphones of both demonstrators and passers-by recorded the killing of Ian Tomlinson, instantly disproving the police's hasty, centralised statements; although their use by all sides during the August 2011 riots showed that this footage could be just as easily used by the courts.

Much of the left, especially its anarchistic and autonomist fringes, has long been comfortable with new media. It was the original Autonomia in 1970s Bologna that appropriated the new apparatus, in the form of the pirate station Radio Alice. What is missing, perhaps, is organisation that could focus these media into something strong enough to shout down the internet's ever-present narcissistic babble; maybe "autonomy needs its Willi Münzenberg", as the critic Steve Edwards has claimed. Inanity still dominates the new media technologies. But what the left could be focusing on is what they make possible.

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