Would you click to watch someone die? Maybe you just did.
The proliferation of cameras—smartphone, news, surveillance, security, webcams, dashboard, GoPro, cops’ body-cams, and “old fashioned” digital models—means the moment of death will increasingly be captured. And the wildly unpredictable moral compass of social media and web content means more of those images will be popping up—literally—on your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds.
Oh, I know they’re already there. Sometimes not very long, and sometimes barely hidden. We occasionally see news video of a death, but it’s almost always distant, blurry, impersonal, obscure.
On one hand, we humans have observed death in all its grim colors more commonly, and closer up, for millennia. Only in the past century has it become a sort of taboo. Media outlets of the pre-Facebook Age avoided any death visuals for various and generally good reasons.
A little perspective: On November 22, 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy changed the relationship between media, death, and the public forever. It was the first landmark, wall-to-wall TV event, unfolding over four days. The infamous Zapruder film of the deadly shot was not broadcast publicly until 1975, often squeamishly avoiding or obscuring the moment when the president’s head virtually exploded as it was hit by a bullet.
For a few decades after that, newspapers and TV had a strict policy about showing death: Don’t. It wasn’t appropriate to see such graphic images at the breakfast table, death was too personal for mass consumption, and most of all, it caused complaints. They also cared greatly about how relatives might feel watching a loved one die.
Even last year, when a TV news reporter and her cameraman were gunned down by a disturbed ex-colleague during a live broadcast, the video almost always stopped short of showing the fatal shot.
But the Internet and social media have changed all that. There is much good about the absolute freedom of expression we now enjoy … and much that’s very bad.
Only here can you watch the beheading of American reporter Daniel Pearl by al Qaeda—as I did just after I returned from a Middle East reporting assignment in 2002. It not only informed me of how exceptionally ruthless our new enemy was, it chastened and chilled me. It changed me.
Now we have seen the same—maybe worse—from ISIS, but for the moment, one cannot see those atrocities unless one purposely seeks them out. They are not thrust upon us like grim pop-up ads.
How long before we witness such a death on live TV or on our Facebook feed, before we have a chance to click or look away? How long before we no longer hide or obscure it, but play it on endless loops like some burning car in Benghazi?
We can hope that it never happens, but it will. In fact, already has in a few cases. It is simply the nature of some humans to find their way around all defense and obstacles to offend, provoke, and shock. Like so many other former taboos, at first, it will be a sensation … then it will become ordinary. Already, there are plenty of curious people who seek it out. Eventually, we will become as accustomed to videos of Mom’s last breath or Sally’s suicide or Walter’s execution as we have become accustomed to vivid descriptions of our Facebook friends’ latest gall-stone surgery.
Sorry, we won’t be showing a death here. But the time is coming that online death will be that easy to watch. After all, we share our most intimate details already on the Internet, so why not our most personal event of all? But the bigger question is whether we will be improved by it, or simply chilled.