We are frittering our lives away, heads buried in tiny screens as the entire world passes us by. Thanks, smartphones.
The smartphone is my favorite gadget, and it makes our lives better and easier in myriad ways. However, I think its omnipresent camera can separate its owner from directly and completely experiencing the real world. Armed with smartphones and ready to take pictures at a moment’s notice, many people are not really present at the most interesting events they’ll ever witness.
Why’s that? Because if anything remotely picture- or video-worthy takes place, the first thing they do is record this event for all posterity. They’ll share it with everyone else. They’ll look back on it lovingly years from now, reminiscing about that wonderful experience they had.
But there’s one problem: They didn’t actually have that experience. Watching it on a tiny screen makes it so they were not completely present — they were watching it on TV, keeping themselves from actually experiencing the moment.
In many ways, this is nothing new. For instance, in 1983 I was with a TV crew that was as close as possible to the eighth space shuttle launch (STS-8). Of course, I had my SLR camera on a tripod, ready to take pictures of the launch, which I did. The only problem was, I was so busy snapping away, I didn’t get to fully experience the liftoff of that giant space beast right in front of me. I will always regret that.
However, imagine that situation, writ large. Now that problem I encountered — depriving myself the one of the most spectacular and awesome events I’ve ever (half-way) seen — has scaled up to include almost everyone who owns a smartphone. Now, everybody’s a photographer, and they’ve forgotten to live life, instead documenting it for a posterity that will never come.
Check out these examples in this video that drove me to write this opinion piece you’re reading right now:
It’s a rare thing to go back and watch a video you shot of your kid’s third-grade play. Comedian Louis C.K. decried parents who should be watching their kids in that play with their own eyes, instead of holding up smartphones (and even iPads) to record the event. As a result, “none of the kids can even see their parents,” Louis says, because of all the smartphones and tablets in front of their faces. Most importantly, none of the parents can honestly say they actually watched their kids’ performance. That’s because they were not present. “Why are you taping this?” Louis asks. “You’re never going to watch it:”
They missed it, because they weren’t the parents, they were the photographers.
It starts simply enough for all of us. You take one picture, look at the result, and suddenly you’re transformed into a photographer. You get into an unfortunate flow state where after that first picture, you’re constantly looking around, trying to figure out what would make another good picture. At that point, you’re no longer experiencing the moment, but you’re composing and framing shots — working as a photographer.
Multiply this by several million, and you’ll get an accurate representation of our society at the moment. Any time there’s an event going on, you see people standing around with that familiar arms-up stance, recording. The upside? We get video of a lot of things we normally wouldn’t have seen. The downside: The people who shot those videos didn’t wholly experience the event they recorded.
My dad was a “shutterbug,” a photography hobbyist who usually had a camera hanging around his neck. He was constantly on the lookout for photographic subjects. He spent his whole life looking around, framing up shots in his imagination, wondering whether this or that would make a good picture. He wasn’t really there, experiencing the moment with the rest of us.
He’s dead now, after living a life looking through a viewfinder. Shortly before his death, he told me he regretted spending all that time taking pictures. He said that all he had to show for it was boxes and boxes of photographs that he shot, developed and printed himself, and then placed in those boxes and never looked at again. We still don’t look at those pictures, because they remind us of our absent dad, experiencing life through a viewfinder.
Don’t end up like him, wasting your life in the real world by photographing it for the electronic/social world. Live your life through your own eyes, not through a viewfinder. Take in the moment, so you can remember it as you experienced it. Keep your smartphone in your pocket and watch what happens; live it.
Then look around you at all those others with their arms outstretched, watching a tiny screen and recording the event rather than directly experiencing it. Pity them. None of them got to see the event with their own eyes like you did.
Live your life — it’s the only one you have.