Since the dawn of the trans-digital age, a term I will use to refer to the post-2000s, when information became instantaneously transferable across the world in a matter of seconds, the idea of the live performance has undergone an extreme, yet unnoticed shift.
Arguably, the harbinger of the trans-digital age was YouTube, the monster video sharing Web site. We should have known, while watching one of those anonymous fuck-up videos of someone running into something, or having something run into them, that just as the tribulations of the Everyman could be broadcast, so could the great achievements of mankind, and perhaps more easily.
For, just as the camera seems omnipresent in the trans-digital age, it was equally absent in earlier times. Though mankind has had television for some time now, film for longer, and photography for longer yet, we have never suffered such an omnipresent recorder as we do now. These days, though it might not be apparent, there is a not insignificant probability that your actions are being recorded, and furthermore that those recordings might end up publicly viewed.
In Roman times, the lowly plebeian would obviously never consider the possibility of his actions being recorded. Instantaneous documentation was inconceivable, and no one but the most wealthy were eligible for any sort of immortalization. The frescoes, paintings and mosaics we have received from ancient times represent only the tiniest sliver of memorable life.
The only person worth recording, and likely the only person who would consider himself worthy, would be a kind of Caesar. We in the future might possess a deep, historical interest in the life of the average plebe, but to imagine his life recorded contemporaneously, or rather to imagine that he would possess the arrogance to record his own life, is quite hard.
The point being that, from the time of Caesar to, let's say, some time in the 1980s, the seminal, amazing, zeitgeist-changing, watershed moments in human history were witnessed by, at most, 100,000 people, and understood by far fewer. I use the number 100,000, though it is probably far higher than needed, to account for huge historical battles, or speeches and plays that were relayed to a number of crowds.
Caesar's assassination was probably seen by a crowd numbering less than 100. The beach landings on D-Day can be contemplated only by those who experienced the horror. Only a select few know what it was like to listen to The Beatles at the Cavern Club in Germany. Only a slightly higher number could recall the psychadelic freak-outs of the late '60s acid tests.
Yet now, after the worldwide viewing of the fall of the Berlin Wall, after New Year's celebrations have been transmitted to many nations for many years, and finally after a seemingly infinite number of concerts have been recorded and distributed to millions, we have a reached an era when almost anyone can actually see, and probably hear, what it was like to witness an astounding event.
So what's astounding anymore?
If thousands, or hundreds of thousands, can post their comments on YouTube - "Michael Jordan is hardly the best basketball player ever." "You should really check out his performance at Madison Square Garden." - what does that do to our concept of greatness? Furthermore, in the trans-digital age, is it even possible to form a consensus anymore?
What would have happened if The Beatles earliest concerts had been posted on YouTube? I'm guessing there would have been hundreds of comments criticizing their skill and degrading the band as a knock-off of American R&B and soul groups. Maybe they wouldn't have even gotten their start. Or what if our greatest sports moments - Babe Ruth's Called Shot - had been recorded from multiple angles and critiqued by as many voices? Would we even have a "greatest" concept anymore? Perhaps even now we're moving away from consensus, from the idea that one thing can be objectively greater than another. Subjectivity is the lawless ruler of the day.