Natacha Pisarenko, File, Associated Press
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:
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.
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