All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
In 1600, when William Shakespeare is believed to have written the play As You Like It, from which the above quote is taken, the world was very small. Each person’s world was constrained by social position, distance from others, and education.
Literacy was not common then so ideas remained fixed in one geographical location or as far as they could spread by word of mouth. Nonetheless, these words, penned in a world filled with multiple microcosmic worlds, presaged a macrocosmic world the author could never have dreamt of.
Today, in 2013, not only is all the world a stage, but it is a stage where everything happens in real time — and the curtain never falls. There are no acts, no intermissions, and no finales. It’s just a relentless series of dramas, some planned, some spontaneous.
This is the world which brought us the mass murder of young school children, the rise and fall of a cycling cancer deity turned illegal drug abuser, and every person who became a household name either through reality TV or by becoming a YouTube sensation. Yet none of these actors would have come to our attention without observational technology, that is, video cameras, communication networks, and the Internet.
When we are not on display ourselves, we are watching the rest of the human race live out their lives in plain view. And, unlike the location-bound people of Shakespeare’s day, we live our lives beyond our physical presence. Away from our temporal existence, we live as moving images. Therefore, we have two lives, which we live simultaneously: a physical life and a recorded life consisting of images, sound and text.
Against this background, we seek to carve out a niche for ourselves. We define ourselves by our affiliations, by our work, by our hobbies and by our interests. Still, our self-definitions can be reinterpreted and misinterpreted.
Observers often think they know us better than we know ourselves. Based on superficial appearances, they make snap judgments about who we are and how they believe we will act.
Cyclists know this phenomenon all too well. Total strangers think they know who cyclists are. In fact, according to themselves, they know all cyclists from either having seen one or from watching inflammatory videos about cyclists on YouTube.
Now that smartphones, mp3 players and other electronic devices come with video cameras, it’s easy to capture the behavior of one person and extend beliefs about that person’s actions to all people of the same class. YouTube and other video sharing sites primarily offer snippets of life. Snippets have no context. There is no before and no after, so life is edited in the eye of the beholder.
Every time a cyclist is cursed out or run off the road by an irate driver this editing process plays a role. Based on what the driver has seen of cyclists, either in real life or via images, he or she interjects what was viewed and draws conclusions about a another person’s world, which they can never really come to know.
Not only do drivers believe that they know individual cyclists whom they’ve never met, but they think they know the world in which those cyclists live. Scofflaw behavior, environmentalism, elitism, recklessness and irresponsibility are all features of the world drivers envision as the realm of cyclists.
This phenomenon isn’t entirely their fault; it’s a side effect of the always connected macrocosmic world we’re trapped in. None of us can escape.
We can, however, become more aware of how technology has altered our perceptions of life and of other people. We can try to understand the complexities of living life on a stage.
Actors are not who they appear to be. A role has been laid out for them or they have chosen it for themselves. What we are witnessing is a masquerade, life lived larger than anything we’d ever see in person. And, we are seeing the surface of a thing, not something of depth.
In Shakespeare’s time citizens lived life for themselves and for their immediate neighbors. Only so much could be known about them, their public life. They had something we lack today — privacy. They could guard their image by controlling what was seen by the public.
Outside of immediate family and friends, no one knew what anyone else was like in private. No one expected to know.
But today, the vast majority of the world’s population thinks they intimately know people they will never meet. From across the globe, people watch each others’ lives and imagine that there is nothing private about them. The act has become the actor. And all the world is his stage.