To spend even a few minutes looking at National Geographic’s WildCam—a round-the-clock streaming-video feed from the edge of a watering hole in the middle of a Botswanan wildlife preserve—is to want to sing its praises. The harder part is saying just why it deserves them. Educational? OK. But after you’ve registered the fact that elephants, zebras, baboons, warthogs, steenboks, and lesser bush babies all enjoy a drink now and then, what exactly is to be learned from watching them enjoy it at epic—nay, Warholian—length? Earth friendly, sure: But while eco-tourism doesn’t get much more low-impact than this (the webcam is safely ensconced in an unobtrusive, paw-proof cage), the savanna-as-screensaver approach surely does not point the way toward a deeper relationship between humankind and its environment. Even the park rangers’ blog, clearly designed to inject some narrative into this uneventful flow (“Did any of you see fattie [the crocodile] catch a cat fish this morning?”), doesn’t so much bring the Web surfer closer to the wilderness as turn the wilderness into a season of The Real World.
But that’s no surprise. The world’s first webcam—the famous “Internet coffee pot,” an automatic coffee-maker in a computer-science lab somewhere, its image updated every 20 seconds to tell the world whether it was full or not—predated the reality-television craze but delivered a similar frisson of framed, surveillant intimacy. A decade later, the WildCam, with its languid impalas and long stretches of bird-sung emptiness, brings us a long-overdue updating of the form, introducing a lyricism and charm that nicely round out what remains the same old coffee-pot Zen: full, not full; animals, no animals; it’s not the information being fed us that we attend to—it’s the feed itself.