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Saved from Oblivion: Documenting the Daily from Diaries to Web Cams

Author: Andreas Kitzmann
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2004
Review Published: March 2007

 REVIEW 1: Timothy D. Ray
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Andreas Kitzmann

Efforts to document our daily lives have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As for the latter, it could be argued that cave drawings were attempts by prehistoric humans to document their lives, although such efforts certainly were not daily undertakings and instead the representation of ongoing activities tended to be communal rather than individual in nature. Over the past several hundred years, however, self-documentation has experienced an upswelling not only in the form of diaries and journals, but also, more recently, in the form of photographic and digital media. In his book, Saved from Oblivion: Documenting the Daily from Diaries to Web Cams, Andreas Kitzmann explores this growing phenomenon, particularly in terms of how emerging technologies are transforming the act of self-documentation.

Kitzmann, who is currently an assistant professor in the School of Arts and Letters at the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies at York University in Toronto, explores self-documentation (the term he uses to broadly identify autobiographical uses of media technology, ranging from diaries to web-cams) through an interesting taxonomy in which he establishes various "postures" and "places" for examining the phenomenon. He then uses three standard media for self-documentation -- the page, the camera, and the network -- for discussing the implications of self-documentation in light of the various postures that he sets up. By and large, the methodology works exceedingly well, although any taxonomy certainly opens up the door to the possibility that there are various other taxonomies that might be used to explore the issue. Nevertheless, Kitzmann pushes the taxonomy as thoroughly as possible to achieve an in-depth and thorough investigation into the matter and as a result achieves remarkable insight and perspective on the phenomenon of self-documentation.

Kitzmann begins by posing what he considers to be some fairly obvious issues for exploration -- "why anyone would feel the need to rigorously document the thoughts and deeds of everyday life. And more curiously, why anyone would want to spend time going over such material" (1). Kitzmann's questions are important because the impulse to self-document is a fascinating curiosity, and any act at self-documentation naturally implies an audience -- whether it be the self or, in many cases, an imagined or real outside audience. And as Kitzmann notes throughout his book (through a recurring hypothetical situation of a found diary on a subway car), audiences typically find such acts of self-documentation compelling, sometimes in somewhat of a voyeuristic fashion. So for every act of self-documentation, there is always an audience -- "implied, eventual, or in real time" (1).

Kitzmann also poses several less obvious, but equally compelling, questions that he considers key to exploring the phenomenon of self-documentation:
  • Where do we document ourselves?
  • What is the nature of the place or the environment within which a given individual chooses to document him- or herself?
  • Are the differences between the place of the diary page and the place of the home movie crucial enough to comment upon?
  • Do the differences bear any relation to the forms of identity constructed and expressed within?
All of these questions are taken up over and over again throughout the text as Kitzmann explores the phenomenon of self-documentation -- an effort that he calls an attempt "to keep oblivion at bay" -- through the use of his different "postures" and "places." Kitzmann justifies his focus on self-documentation by noting that "While other forms of media-technology practices could have been selected, self-documentation offers a particularly appropriate area given its highly personalized nature and its frequent inclusion in the rhythms of everyday life" (5).

The first "place" that Kitzmann investigates is "Media Place," where he looks at the place of the page, the place of the camera, and the place of the network in successive chapters. Kitzmann explains his use of the term "place" as exactly that: "a place that one enters in order to engage in a process or practice of mediation, of communication, representation, and expression" (21). In other words, different media (page, camera, network) require different approaches on behalf of the self-documenter to utilize those "places" or spaces for self-documentation. The different approaches that we must adopt are the different "postures" that Kitzmann explores. As he states, "media posture is an essential component of media use" (23).

In this section of the text, the most interesting insights that Kitzmann makes are in terms of the camera (indeed, the chapter on "The Place of the Camera" is as long as the other two chapters in this section put together). According to Kitzmann, because the camera preserves specific moments in time as images (he calls this the "magic" of the perfect moment [35]), the camera demonstrates technology's ability to shape and complexify material reality (35). Kitzmann discusses both the still camera and the movie camera (and, in the latter sense, both the film camera and the videotape camera) in this chapter and notes how, in each instance, the camera became a "near constant presence and often an essential tool for the success of any given family event" (44). In discussing the transition from film movie cameras to videotape cameras, Kitzmann notes that the low cost, reusability, and typically longer format of videotape (hours per tape instead of minutes per reel) resulted in a "temporal shift" (49) in self-documentation in which almost anything could be continuously recorded and viewed again later or continuously recorded and then recorded over -- and thus erased -- with a new recording. Self-documentation became infinitely more extendable and expendable. At the same time, Kitzmann notes, the affordability and reusability of videotape has resulted in video cameras being everywhere -- being ubiquituous -- and so we have adapted to a mindset that we may be on camera at any given time (50). We have become camera conscious, and that carries over into being always posturing for the camera lens, which impacts the practice of self-documentation through still and video cameras.

In the last part of the chapter about cameras, Kitzmann bridges the gap between cameras and networks by discussing the evolving role of web-cams on our lives in general and self-documentation more specifically. (Note: Kitzmann hyphenates the term "web-cam," and so I have chosen to follow his practice throughout this review.) Calling the place of the web-cam a "curious one" (50), Kitzmann best articulates the "place" of the web-cam himself:
    The web-cam is not without its distinct postures. One the consumption side, web-cam images are normally watched by individuals rather than groups and thereby position the user within the static restlessness of the "web surf." One watches, and waits for something to happen, rather than encountering images that have already been selected and contrived on the basis of significance of entertainment value -- or at least such is the pretense or assumption. The attraction of the "totally live" web-cam is precisely the possibility of being within the moment of representation itself. For a brief instance, the consumer is relocated to the "there" of the web-cam in a manner that is literally in sync with the time and place of representation. (51)
In terms of the place of the network, Kitzmann says the network cannot be static and is always in a "hyper" state. It exists in a temporal-spatial environment that is marked by plurality -- "plurality of time, plurality of experience, plurality of space, plurality of contact, and so on" (57). As such, it provides a unique place for self-documentation.

In the second section of the text, "Private Place," Kitzmann explores the concept of "private place" through three different lenses that are roughly analogous to the three types of media that he considers in the text -- pure privacy (the printed page), public privacy (the camera), and connected privacy (the network). In the opening chapter to this section, Kitzmann notes how the term "privacy" does not have a fixed definition and is not necessarily always the opposite of public. Particularly in terms of self-documentation, an activity such as diary writing may appear to be intensely private, but because all self-documentation necessarily implies an audience of some sort, the seemingly private act of self-documentation is also "ultimately exhibitionist" (67), Kitzmann argues. As he notes, "even the lone diary writer is scribbling for the sake of posterity and a readership beyond the grave. More contemporary practices such as digital video, web-cams, and online diaries go even further in terms of catapulting the individual self-documenter into the public spotlight" (67). Kitzmann's categories of pure privacy, public privacy, and connected privacy are attempts, he says, to bring some structure to his investigation of how self-documenters navigate between the private and the public (67). He cautions, however, that these categories are not mutually exclusive.

In the chapter on pure privacy, Kitzmann says this term represents our most common definition of privacy and involves isolation and the ability to control the access that others have to one's own personal space (69). In the chapter on public privacy, Kitzmann points to online diaries and personal web-cams as examples and says that such self-documenters are able to "directly control and sculpt a particular public image" of themselves (86), and that such practices raise the average person to the level of "cultural producers" (86). "Private space," Kitzmann writes, "undergoes an important mutation by virtue of being coupled with the very public spaces of performance, celebrity, and commercial media" (87). In the chapter on connected privacy, Kitzmann argues that there's a public perception that the coupling of self-documentation with technology through web-cams and web-diaries somehow erodes our sense of what privacy is -- that "something irreparable is being done to the sanctity of private space and personal integrity" (89). According to Kitzmann, that public perception results in a sense of nostalgia when there were such things as "real privacy, real intimacy, and community" (89-90). "Within such a mindset," he states, "technology is something that happens to a preexisting social or cultural space" (90). Even so, Kitzmann notes, practitioners of online self-documentation are drawn toward the practice by a sense of community (92).

The third section of Kitzmann's book focuses on what he calls "Real Place" and examines it though what he calls "positive reality," "negative reality," and "returned reality." Again, the first category is most closely tied with the page, and is often viewed as most authentic because of its perceived "ordinariness" (103).

In terms of negative reality, Kitzmann notes the impact of the computer on this concept -- a concept which could arguably be looked at as some sort of anti-reality or even hyper-reality. Indeed, Kitzmann notes the terms "hyper-real," "simulacrum," and "virtual" as being theoretical and/or computer-related terms that made their way out of academia and into everyday conversation during the 1980s and signaled the advent of negative reality, or, as Kitzmann puts it, a time when "the real disappeared with a vengeance" (111). At this time, he says, "the real was augmented, compromised, extended, or de-realized as never before" (111). Expressions of cyberspace, Kitzmann writes, "represent an ethos and an aesthetic by which reality is consistently removed from its moorings" (111). Further, "within the realm of cyberspace everything becomes suddenly possible but in a manner that is neither a fabrication nor a 'reality' in the conventional sense" (111). In terms of self-documentation, this "negative reality" has resulted in a situation where the virtual is ever-present, and so authenticity has become marginalized. At the same time, with web-cams always being on, self-documentation has become ever-present, so some people live in a situation of constant self-documentation. Because the web opens up possibilities for deception, affirmative invention, and self-creation, the network enables the real to disappear, if desired (114).

In his chapter on "Returned Reality," Kitzmann defends online self-documentation, stating that
    it indicates the reinsertion of the embodied human and its material ground into the "immaterial" place of the web. In other words, web-based self-documentation is significant because it privileges tropes and paradigms that are drawn more from embodied human experience rather than from abstract technological domains such as those of cybernetics and virtual reality. (125)
Further elaborating, Kitzmann says the practice does not represent "the will to virtuality," but rather "the will to will the virtual real" (126), and thus results in a cultivation of the web as an actual space rather than an "abstracted illusion" (126).

Finally, in the fourth part of his text, "Time Place," Kitzmann examines "the question of time" (129) and its relation to self-documentation. Kitzmann examines this question, in successive chapters, through the concepts of still time, future time, and real time.

In the chapter on still time, Kitzmann notes how the popularization of clocks and watches during the 17th and 18th centuries contributed to the popularization of diary writing by creating a greater consciousness of time passing in segments and the need to fill up those segments with worthwhile activities and to document the effective and worthwhile use of time. In other words, the regulation of time by increasingly present clocks and watches led to people increasingly defining themselves by how they used their time and subsequently led to self-documentation of how they were spending their time.

In the chapter on future time, Kitzmann argues that modernity and industrialism "put time and the individual into motion" (139), resulting in introspection being brought out into the open -- "into the marketplace and out into the zones of display, consumption, and spectacle" (139-40), and it was no small coincidence that the camera -- whose basic workings had existed for over 100 years -- evolved rapidly during this time. Kitzmann argues that the effect of "future time" was a diminished emphasis on what the past can teach us and instead a reconfiguring of the past as something potentially having little bearing on today or tomorrow (144). During this time, the camera, and its ability to capture still and moving images, became more meaningful as an arbiter and reliable stockpile of memory than actual human memory. Kitzmann notes how manufacturers of both still and movie cameras marketed their products as important companions for all meaningful events and as a type of "prosthetic memory" (147-8).

In the chapter on real time, Kitzmann defines real time as "the time of immediacy" and as signifying a preoccupation with the "now" (155). He points to the television as "the primary conduit" for real time (155) and also notes how web-cams are increasingly becoming conduits as well. In terms of web diaries, Kitzmann also notes how the present moment is the critical moment for this type of self-documentation: "Web diarists write for themselves and for others who also write for themselves and others, often forming web-rings that encourage and enable nearly constant interchange and interaction. Such a discursive environment clearly privileges the present as the mode within which material is created and exchanged" (158). Web diarists, Kitzmann argues, must be constantly "plugged in" to the other members of the list as well as to the "structural plane" of the web and must adopt a posture of "anticipation, of readiness and heightened awareness" (160). The result of the network's influence on real time is what Kitzmann argues is a "third time" -- a "network time" -- "in which the distinctions between the real and the unreal matter less than those of connection and disconnection" and which is "unlike anything that human beings have experienced before" (169). This rather dense concept could use further exploration and explanation, and hopefully Kitzmann will undertake that in the future.

Kitzmann concludes by arguing that self-documentation will increasingly become a highly mediated and highly technological public activity. Ultimately, Kitzmann sees self-documentation as an attempt to resist death -- something that he had indicated in his opening chapter when he spoke of the practice of constructing markers, monuments, memorials, and gravestones (3). Resisting death is an attempt to "keep oblivion at bay" (177), and the practice of self-documentation reflects a human desire "to hold on to time, experience, and memory" (177).

Kitzmann's discussion of the practice of self-documentation and how that practice is evolving along with various emerging technologies (the page, the camera, the network) is insightful and provocative. For a text of less than 200 pages, it is remarkably dense with ideas. Many of the ideas -- such as his concept of "third time" -- are little nuggets that could be further expanded into book-length discussions, by him or by other scholars working in this area. The organizing principle of the text around various places and postures, coupled with the paradigmatic examples of the page, the camera, and the network, provides a highly accessible way of engaging with Kitzmann's ideas on the topic. And it seems clear from the text that these are not random, idle thoughts about the subject, but that Kitzmann has thought carefully about the topic and organized his thoughts very carefully. Regardless of whether the reader buys into Kitzmann's organizational structure, Kitzmann's book represents a distinctive, if not original, view on the practice of self-documentation in light of previous practices and emerging technologies and may very well be a generative work for further discussions on the topic. In this reviewer's opinion, it is clearly worth reading by anyone interested in the practice of self-documentation in general and the role of emerging technologies on the practice of self-documentation more specifically.

Saved from Oblivion: Documenting the Daily from Diaries to Web Cams could easily have been doubled in length, particularly in light of recent events such as the "Lonelygirl15" fake blog, author James Frey's fictionalized A Million Little Pieces, and the whole MySpace/Facebook phenomenon. But a text that was double in length probably would have opened up even more avenues for exploration, and the organizing principle may not have been sustainable over such a longer work. Regardless, Kitzmann's text provides an in-depth look at a fascinating topic that is continuing to evolve as the corresponding technologies evolve, and is a worthy read for all scholars in this field.

Timothy D. Ray:
Timothy D. Ray, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, in West Chester, PA. He reviewed Profiling Machines: Mapping the Personal Information Economy for RCCS.  <TRay@wcupa.edu>

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