I knew how it was going to go. Someone noticed that the west was starting to look dramatic, with the late sun cutting up under the clouds in tones of silvered brass, the color of trumpets, and I knew the rest. Studying sunsets used to be part of my business, for years, and I knew this routine like a hit song. Pretty soon there’d be a golden pink glow setting in and then flaring to something almost violent, uncanny, while rugged gray-blue shadows raised shapes on the sky, at first like smoke and then like solid badlands. The wash of rose gold would stay and intensify to saturated pink, and on to magenta and finally, as it slipped down and away, dark red. There would be pastel stripes low down in the north and the river would shine flat and rosy within its dusky banks. This is just the way it all works out, with those clouds and those angles and that timing.
I knew this, too, and also from experience: I was going to point my phone camera at it and take a picture, and I was not going to get it. It doesn’t work. It would make a pretty picture of something, but none of it would look like what was revealed to the eye. The colors on the screen would be thin and inaccurate, the contrasts all wrong, the whole thing flat and dead. The immensity of the light, the way it came from everywhere and clung to everything, was beyond the sensors’ capability. It could not pass through the lens and the software and the display and come out the other end as any part of what it was.
I took the pictures anyway. Everyone does. I’ve done it before. The photos go up on Twitter and Instagram, and at best, at their most successful, they’re nothing more than a signal to the other people who also saw it, a reference to something outside the reality of the screens and the systems.
That’s not what the screens are built to do, though. The screens are there to say, Here is everything, just as it was, just as you want it. What’s on the screen is not supposed to be an inferior substitute, or any substitute at all, but a portal straight to the thing, as real as it can possibly be. We’re all minds apprehending the world at a remove, anyway, right?
We know it doesn’t work. We know people’s visages don’t really swell out in the midface, the eyes enlarging, the mouth receding, everyone’s nose converging on the same shape as everyone else’s. That’s just the shape of the selfie lens. We know rigid-minded creeps with pretentious opinions aren’t really living marble busts or oil paintings, like their avis. We know the shimmering backgrounds are just a mylar fringe somebody hung up, that their parties aren’t really floating in sparkling space.
The substitution happens anyway, though. Music streams in whatever depleted digital format you buy temporary access to, through the cloud. Barack Obama’s presidential papers will be digitized and indexed and kept away from human hands and eyes. Prisoners are issued video-call opportunities, at preposterous rates, instead of the sight of their loved ones, entire and in the flesh. It is all good enough. It is nothing.