A FEW MINUTES before connecting to whatever online meeting I’m supposed to attend, I open the Photo Booth app in order to ensure that the part of me that will be visible is presentable, that I haven’t got food on my face or stains on my clothes, and that, should my dog decide to absolutely go to town licking his own penis as he is sometimes wont to do, said autofellation will take place outside of the frame. This pre-meeting ritual is, I imagine, quite common. We want to know how we will appear on other screens in other people’s houses, we need to see ourselves before we allow others to do so. The Photo Booth app and the selfie camera on my phone have become mirrors.
But screens are not mirrors in and of themselves; the gaze is not unmediated, I am not merely looking at myself. Rather, I see myself via software, as a result of a camera’s sensors detecting me and creating an image. The Photo Booth preview screen is by default reversed horizontally, to maintain the illusion of looking into an actual mirror. Despite such software trickery, intended to make me feel at ease with the image being presented, mirroring is not the main purpose of the camera. Sometimes I forget this.
When I lived in Iraq, over a decade ago, the little green light indicating that the webcam was operational would regularly appear unprompted on various family members’ devices. After a while, we got used to this and began joking that the NSA was dropping by—a joke that was probably closer to the truth than any of us cared to admit—and began chatting with the ghosts in the machine as though they were friends interested in hearing about our day. I don’t remember who first put a Post-it note over the webcam’s lens, but we all soon followed suit. A few years later, the Snowden leaks informed the world that intelligence agencies now could gain access to webcams without making the laptop light turn on. Even knowing this, I no longer have anything covering my camera: it is too much of a hassle, ultimately, to keep covering and uncovering the lens throughout the day. If I don’t see the light turn on without my permission, I can convince myself that I am the one conjuring the mirror, rather than someone sitting in an office cubicle halfway across the world conjuring me.
That the false, digital mirror has become a fertile source of intelligence gathering by the NSA and its competing agencies is but the latest development in a long history of surveillance and espionage. Though reflective surfaces have been used as mirrors ever since prehistory (the earliest discovered so far is a piece of polished obsidian dating from 6000 BC), it wasn’t until the early 16th century, when glassmakers on the Italian island of Murano discovered a way to coat a sheet of glass with a thin layer of tin and mercury, that the modern mirror was created. According to Chloe Zerwick’s A Short History of Glass, these artisans had been moved from Venice to Murano in the early 13th century. The furnaces required to fuse chemicals into molten glass were deemed too hazardous for a fire-prone city; in addition, the glassmakers’ secret formulas and practices were jealously guarded treasures. With the advent of the Murano mirror, these secrets became more valuable still. For decades, French spies tried to infiltrate the island, to no avail.
The Murano mirror quickly became one of the most sought-after possessions in the world, eye-wateringly expensive; a single mirror could cost 8,000 pounds, according to Mark Pendergrast’s book Mirror, Mirror: A History Of The Human Love Affair With Reflection. To put this in perspective: 8,000 pounds could buy you a naval ship, or three paintings by Raphael. A countess who traded an entire farm for a single mirror thought this an incredible bargain. For centuries, only the very wealthiest could afford the curse of knowing exactly what they looked like. The merely affluent had to settle for a convex mirror called l’œil de sorcière, or witch’s eye. You can see them in all manners of paintings from the 15th century, perhaps most famously in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. These curved mirrors were much easier to produce and they filled the homes of the well-heeled, a piece of decoration that also functioned as a status symbol.
Since a curved mirror allows for a wider field of view than a regular mirror, the œils de sorcière quickly become early tools of surveillance for bankers, who could with a glance surveil their customers and employees, and for butlers, who could observe a dining room while standing just outside it to judge the timing of the next course.
Inevitably, the secrets of the Murano mirror escaped the island. Though the pampered glassmakers earned the highest of salaries, and were allowed to marry whichever nobleman’s daughter tickled their fancy, they were prisoners living under the threat of the death penalty should they attempt an escape. Louis XIV’s ambassador to Venice sent a merchant to Murano to find glassmakers willing to decamp to Paris to teach the French the art of mirror-making, in exchange for exorbitant amounts of money and land, and the promise of freedom, and eventually enough of them defected to end Murano’s reign. The secret seeped into the world, ushering in a future where even commoners can live under the tyranny of their own reflection.
The œil de sorcière gained its poetic name due to the fact that you could see the entirety of the room in which the mirror hung, and sight alone was believed to be a means of repelling evil spirits. Just as turning on the lights in a child’s room reveals that the monster in the closet is merely a pile of clothes, spirits, who were believed to reside in the unseen, would vanish merely by being looked at. Once the mirror allowed you to see everything at once, the spirits would need to find another home.
New technologies often come with a link to spiritualism: Thomas Edison, toward the end of his life, was at work on a “spirit telephone” whereby the departed might “communicate with those they had left here.” When cameras began using glass plate negatives, there was an immediate boom in spirit photography, with claims that these devices could capture the images of ghosts or fairies. But no technology has been as linked with the supernatural as the mirror. As early as 2000 BC, Mesoamerican cultures believed that reflective surfaces were a portal to other realms. John Dee, the court astronomer for Elizabeth I, came to the conclusion while studying optics that mirrors could permit communication with the divine. It is not a coincidence that mirror shares the same Latin root as miracle.
Mirrors aren’t that different from the Photo Booth on my laptop: behind a simple reflection lie mysteries of which we can glimpse only the contours. In Candyman or Prince of Darkness, from Harry Potter to the “Bloody Mary” ritual enacted in many a teenager’s bedroom, mirrors still contain occult mysteries.
Strangely, it’s hard science that has more than once convinced me of the possibility of the supernatural: my atheism turned into agnosticism not by reading a religious text or visiting a holy temple, but by watching a YouTube video of Carl Sagan explaining the fourth dimension. Similarly, I had always dismissed the possibility of there being something more to mirrors than my own pudgy face until the first images by the James Webb telescope were published. Through 18 hexagonal mirrors we can see the beginning of time itself; that might not strictly qualify as communicating with the divine, but it’s not far off.
The myth of Narcissus might have as its inspiration the belief in ancient Greece that one’s soul could be captured if one stared too long at a reflective surface, but the psychologist Henri Wallon’s experiments with mirrors provide a better key to the story. Wallon—whose concept of the mirror phase was later taken up by Lacan—deduced that both human infants and chimpanzees recognized their own reflection, but found that the chimpanzee would quickly grow bored of seeing itself. Humans, on the other hand, remained endlessly fascinated. Like Narcissus, we cannot look away. What does that say about our so-called intelligence?
Even now, when mirrors are ubiquitous, I still find myself oddly transfixed when I’m at the hairdresser, contemplating my reflection for an hour.
Is that really me? Is that what I look like?
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