NEW YORK — There it was, gazed upon by millions in horror, anger and pure fascination: a grainy, sputtering image of the deep blue sea and its interloper — the bubbling brown goo that was spewing into the water from the depths of the planet.
It was, of course, the "spillcam" — the reverse periscope into the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico that was broadcast live to the world from May to July. For the first time, we could watch in real time as a huge natural disaster unfolded in a place that for most of human history had been beyond our view.
And why not? Because that is what we do in this Brave New World, this modern age of unprecedented and unsettling wonder:
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In a nation riven by disagreements and political conflicts and niche markets and on-demand isolation, this unites us: Hungrily, aggressively, sometimes stupefyingly, we watch.
If you needed any more evidence that we've become a nation of watchers, look no further than 2010. From the spillcam to Snooki, from volcanic clouds to video ambushes, the spectacle that was the past year ensured that the image — the weird, wonderful, horrifying, mesmerizing image — reigned supreme.
And there was certainly no shortage of spectacle for the hundreds of millions of American eyes casting about for something to see.
We watched a Florida minister threaten to burn a Quran on the 9/11 anniversary, then watched him hopscotch across the country conducting interviews about whether he'd do it or not. When he didn't, we watched him go to New Jersey and collect a 2011 Hyundai Accent from a car dealer for his troubles.
We watched the daughter of a vice presidential candidate perform on a celebrity dancing show, and do well — and when that made a guy in Wisconsin so angry that he shot out his television, well, we watched that, too. All the more buzz for her mother's reality show — a new addition to a genre that has turned pretty much every human endeavor into a story to be gazed upon and marveled at.
We watched a neighborhood explode in California. We watched a volcanic cloud spread across Europe, ground airplanes and strand thousands — the primeval slapping back at the high-tech. We watched, live, as an earthquake ravaged Chile and, in slow motion, sent a possible tsunami rippling across the ocean toward Hawaii and Japan, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief when the sound and fury signified very little.
We watched an unconventional pop star appear at an awards ceremony in a dress made of raw meat. We watched a fed-up flight attendant slide down a plane's emergency chute and into the national spotlight. We watched an advocacy group that transcends geography dump thousands of sensitive documents onto the media's doorstep. We watched its leader justify his actions, be charged with sex crimes and, finally, be jailed only to be released.
We watched our Facebook feeds for all the images that our friends and our "friends" posted, then watched as the 26-year-old who built this unprecedented way for people to talk to each other — 500 million at last count — was mythologized in a movie not of his making.
We watched the roof of a sports arena collapse under the weight of water and snow — and were able to simply because cameras already set up to record a football game happened to be running.
These images of 2010 — we know them how? Because, thanks to our modern cabinet of wonders, we were able to train our gaze upon them on all our devices. Then we talked about watching, and watched ourselves talking about watching on the endless shows that demand the allegiance of our eyes because of the imagery they produce.
Americans have watched together before, of course — the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the moon landing, the Challenger exploding, the earliest bombings of the first Gulf War, O.J. Simpson in his Bronco on the freeways of Southern California. But somehow, stealthily, watching has become an active verb.
Now we no longer simply receive imagery. We pursue it. And the passions it feeds — the shouting about things on the air and online that has become a spectacle to watch in and of itself — have made us the true heirs to Howard Beale from "Network." Just look at the shows that attract so many viewers, the Olbermanns and O'Reillys and Becks and Maddows: The whole point of watching is to be mad as hell and not take it anymore.
Part of it, too, is that there is simply more to watch on more platforms and devices — and thus more opportunity to see the things that humans do, particularly at the extreme ends of the spectrum.
Cameras are everywhere, recording every obscure corner in the name of security and archivalism and just plain prurience. That gave us the footage of Christine O'Donnell, the Delaware Senate candidate, suggesting that the First Amendment doesn't mention the separation of church and state. That gave us the entire saga of a man who stormed a Florida school board meeting with a gun and killed himself.
But it's more than ubiquity that brings us our daily bread of images. It's democratization, too.
The camera's eye has been handed to us all. Myriad little devices have taken people to the point where anything — smartphone, portable music player, tiny digital camera — can capture video and upload it to the Web instantly. This has created an expectation that our fellow human beings' lives will be digitized, compressed and uploaded on a dime. Hence YouTube's tagline: "Broadcast yourself."
And now: social media. What was once the ability to watch collectively but alone — the network TV era — has become the ability to watch separately but together. You can lie in bed and watch Fox's "Fringe" while, in real time on your iPad, converse on Twitter with one of its stars, John Noble, about what you're seeing at that exact moment.
This was certainly the year of the iPad, a moment when the portable, keyboardless big screen let us watch, wherever we went, video in a size that, in 1955, would have required a credenza-sized piece of machinery. With the dawn of the tablet, decent-sized imagery became as portable as a sheet of paper.
How, though, do we process this era of continuously shared spectacle, this distorted catalog of us? Can the global feed we're all jacked into even be made sense of? We see more than ever, but what does it mean? Even the most media-savvy are struggling to make sense of this fundamental reconfiguration in the way we process the world and what we want out of it.
The visionaries who are planning for the future of television, online media and social networks are focused not only on how to attract audiences, but how to manipulate them — to entice them, move them around and have them act in the financial interests of advertisers. They know that imagery rules, that watching is trumping reading, that spectacle sells. Nothing new there.
"We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves," Daniel J. Boorstin wrote in "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America." That was 1961. Before the Internet. Before portable video. Before Facebook and Twitter.
To those already ravenous for the next outsized imagery: Fret not. New Year's Eve should prove satisfying. MTV says it will place Snooki inside a ball that drops in Times Square at midnight. Other members of the "Jersey Shore" cast, we're told, will lead the crowd in a collective fist pump. It will all, of course, be broadcast live.
So stay tuned. Don't touch that dial, don't push that remote, don't click that browser arrow or tap that tablet. Keep watching. We'll be right back, and there's lots more to come.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press.
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