A Life Unvideotaped Is Worth Living

Regardless of what happens to President Clinton, his grand jury testimony will surely be remembered as a milestone in the history of audiovisual technology. In the years ahead, citizens may look back at Sept. 21, 1998 as the moment when America experienced its first collective jolt of video overload.

I'm amazed that four hours of unedited tape were played without interruption. Until a few weeks ago, the idea would have seemed preposterous to TV executives and viewers. I'd like to interview all the people who watched the entire broadcast and find out how many of them wish they could have those four hours back.

The time element is the main reason I haven't allowed videotaping to get a foothold in my life. Having grown up in the age of Kodak Instamatic cameras, film cartridges, and flash cubes, I preserve significant moments with the click of a shutter. The resulting snapshots can be kept in a drawer or photo album, easily accessed when I have a few spare minutes.

Video is more intrusive. Watching home videos means sitting down and viewing the events in real time - appropriate for some important occasions, such as weddings or graduations, especially if the video is professionally shot and edited. But VCR equipment has become so pervasive that camcorders seem to be rolling at every softball game, backyard cookout, and Super Bowl party from coast to coast. Families are accumulating hundreds of hours of tape. Will all those recordings be seen, and treasured, by future generations?

I also have a quirky, personal belief that images from earlier times should have an archival appearance. For me, family history comes to mind in black-and-white. Color photos from World War II look strangely unreal. Color is more suited to home movies from the postwar years, and those reels of film often project the spontaneous energy of the baby-boom era.

Everything seems immediate on video. Tape from 1985 looks as if it might have been recorded yesterday. This timeless visual quality makes the past appear static, as if it's not receding into the chronological distance behind us. And that illusion isn't something I want to encourage in my household. Instead of making videos, we're building a collection of snapshots, including some black-and-white prints of the family, so my daughter will have her own distinctive images of the "old days."

There's nothing wrong with looking backward. I just don't want the view to be so vivid and entertaining that it distracts me from what's going on here and now.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, who writes from Portland, Ore., is a Monitor humor columnist.

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