CAMBRIDGE — When did fact and fiction begin to blur in modern life? It would be impossible to give a precise date. It’s easy enough, though, to say when it happened. That would be the first time someone used the expression “It was just like a movie.” You’ve said it. I’ve said it. It long ago became a global lingua franca.
In contrast, the blurring of fact and fiction in the collective life of Greater Boston can be dated, and dated precisely. It began when Monday’s first bomb went off, at 2:50 p.m.
The explosions, the carnage and confusion, the cordoning off of streets, the sudden high visibility of large numbers of law enforcement and military personnel, a general sense of expectancy and awareness that the whole world was watching, helicopters overhead, the door-to-door searches for a terrorism suspect: Other cities have experienced this blurring, and far more extensively and grimly. But that otherness is the point, isn’t it? Those places are elsewhere, and this was happening here.
So the experience has been both universal and particular. It’s one thing to turn on CNN and see images from Mumbai or Madrid or lower Manhattan and think, “It’s like a movie.” That’s seeing the images from the point of view of a moviegoer. Seeing them from Boylston Street or Cambridge or Watertown, let alone seeing events in person on Boylston Street or in Cambridge or Watertown, is something else. It’s seeing them from the point of view of a participant or extra. Either way, the screen as window has turned into screen as mirror.
The familiarity of all this becomes unnerving. A kind of cognitive dissonance sets in: You’ve never seen any of this before, not first-hand, yet it feels as though you have.
Cognitive dissonance is when opposites collide without combining. With blurring, they combine without colliding. This makes them feel vague and weightless. What is fact? What is fiction? What’s in the middle? This blur, our blur, has been different. It feels all too weighty. Proximity will have that effect on anything.
Or maybe it’s that a point has been reached where the nature of the blurring has changed. Instead of fact and fiction, it’s now a question of fact and fact: the three-dimensional and the two-dimensional. Two roles have merged to form a different one. Moviegoer, who watches, and participant, who acts, have become computer user, who watches (distractedly) and acts (if only alphanumerically).
So much of daily experience consists now of looking at screens. The movies, up on a screen that was big, were always set apart from daily life. Their being superior to it was so much of their appeal. The screens we look at now are small. They’re on laptops, tablets, smartphones. They are daily life. Except that they’re not, or only partly. That’s where the blur comes in.
The bombings doubly underscored that blur. There was the passive screen experience of watching footage and following updates on the story. But there was also the appeal from authorities that anyone in the vicinity of the Marathon finish line who had taken pictures or video on a personal electronic device share it with the FBI. As a concept, doesn’t “interactive” fall between passive and active?
Surveillance-camera footage helped lead to identification of the suspects. That was another unnerving aspect of the aftermath of the bombings: seeing that video again and again, like a clip from a very badly made, yet crucially significant movie. Much of the rest of that movie, the part we didn’t see, consisted of the footage and images taken by the many people in Copley Square around 2:50 p.m. They’re part of the blur, too. They were in the movie, they helped make it, and now they’re part of the audience. The blur between fact and fiction, three-dimensional fact and two-dimensional, also extends now to actor and viewer.