Desensitized to beauty
Queenstown, New Zealand—With all the beautiful images we see in social media, not to mention on travel blogs, websites and TV shows, are we at risk of being desensitized to beauty?
When star trails began appearing in my Instagram feed, they were a novelty, possible only through the meticulous setup of an SLR camera and a clear night sky. But thanks in part to the proliferation of GoPros, I see star trails so often that I’m not so enthused to “like” them anymore.
There is much historical precedent for photographic developments losing their novelty, including photography itself. When National Geographic magazine was launched in 1888, it sufficed for it to publish illustrations of peoples and places. But since 1905, pictures have become an integral part of its narrative, starting with black and white and eventually in full color.
Today we can capture the world in ultra-high-definition, and visualize its entirety, from the ocean floor to the lofty Himalayas. With the proliferation of images—and our increasing ability to travel to those places ourselves—are we still able to apprehend beauty?
Perhaps visual imagery will diminish in potency as digital images become even more ubiquitous and high-definition. When I was trekking in the mossy forests of Kitanglad Range, one of my companions gasped, “It’s like ‘Lord of the Rings!’” The imagined, digitally enhanced worlds—more vivid and accessible to our eyes—have become the standard against which the real is judged.
But beauty goes beyond what we see. The landscapes of Middle Earth may look even more spectacular than their filming locations here in New Zealand, but the movies do not convey the cold wind, the pastoral odors, the cacophony of its forests. There are now “4D theatres” that add sounds, odors, and movements, but there will always be a demand for the “real.”
Our response, then, is to go beyond the visual in the way we define our experiences. Do we remember sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations just as vividly as images? The power of music to tap into our deepest emotions and the power of smells to transport us through time should convince us of the possibility of a fuller experience of the world through the engagement of all our senses.
This is not easy because most of us have always regarded sight as the “noblest of senses.” Even so, the overload of imagery should make us rethink our engagement with the world. When confronted with a beautiful sunset, we rush to capture it with our cameras, but what of the tropical breeze, the smell and sound of the sea, the feeling of lying on the sand? Perhaps we are missing half of the world, not because we’re not looking hard enough, but because we’re not closing our eyes.
Can beauty be diminished by dilution? Will each and every one of a thousand Angel Locsins be as beautiful as the one that is unique? This is a philosophical question, but it draws parallels with the one we’re trying to grapple with: Can the multiplicity of beautiful images threaten the beauty of the images themselves?
Possibly. But again, only if we are relying on our sense of sight. Even if a thousand persons looked the same, they will have different voices, movements, and certainly, different personalities. That, too, is beauty. By moving away from the visual, perhaps we can find a complexity in the world that cannot be reduced to images.
Bringing in the element of change, moreover, can allow us to argue that because the world is constantly in motion, the possibilities for something new can never be exhausted. As the Northern Lights danced above us in that magical night in Iceland, our guide exclaimed: “We are actually just as thrilled as you are, because the lights are different each time!”
I would like to approach the world the same way he does—not just its wonders but the epiphanies of everyday living: an enchanting song, a fragrant street, an unexpected kiss, a sudden rainbow. Beauty itself may always be a mystery, but for as long as we engage all our senses—and as certain as the world is ever changing—surely there will always be moments that will take our breath away.
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