So far, the State of Distraction series has looked at how technology distracts us from self-reflection and from engaging in the reality of life. This post focuses on how the prevalence of camera phones affects our personal and cultural experiences of the present moment.
Last fall I saw Mumford and Sons perform an outdoor concert, and it was an incredible show. The band had high energy, great onstage chemistry, and for the most part the crowd was really into it. However, I was constantly surrounded by people texting and taking pictures or videos. Instead of dancing or singing, the crowd around us preoccupied themselves with attempting to document and share this moment.
Is this harmful, or harmless? Am I bringing up a legitimate concern, or am I just old fashioned and out of touch? Either way, it can’t be ignored that the presence of camera phones is changing how we experience the present moment, and I would like to argue that it profoundly affects us on a personal and cultural level.
First, let’s look at this issue from a cultural or social perspective. I’m almost certain that any person who has attended a concert can relate to the above scenario. The immediate reaction is to just say who cares?–ignore the people on their phones and have a good time! I did exactly that at the Mumford concert; I wasn’t about to let an iPhone ruin the show for me. On a personal level, I experienced my favorite band to the fullest extent.
While we can look past them personally, camera phones do detract from the cultural (or communal) experience of an event. Picture a concert, college football game, wedding, or any social event you want. If your image is accurate, it will include many (if not most) people texting or taking pictures of the event. Now imagine the same event, but this time no one has a phone or camera. Everyone is fully present and engaged: the whole crowd dancing madly at the concert, connecting with family at the wedding, cheering like a painted-up crazed college kid at the football game. A much richer, meaningful cultural experience is created when people engage completely in the present moment.
A similar effect occurs on the personal level, and this is beautifully demonstrated in a scene from the Ben Stiller movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (As an aside, this is a great movie, and there will most likely be a whole post dedicated to it!). In the scene, Walter (Ben Stiller) finds the eccentric photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) deep in the Himalayan mountains, where O’Connell has a perfect view of the elusive snow leopard in his sights. What happens next is that he does not take the shot. He explains to the much dismayed Walter that some moments are too valuable to try and capture; you must experience them fully in the present.
Taking the picture would have distracted O’Connell from an incredible moment. Instead of appreciating the leopard’s beauty and being grateful for having seen it, he would be focused on the future–on capturing an image to prove to others what he saw. I think Stiller uses this scene to show how our desire to capture every important moment lessens the extent to which we experience these great moments.
I think many people here will object to my claim. You may say that it’s harmless to snap a quick photo, and it makes up for any distraction by creating a valuable picture to help remember something. I agree that sometimes there is zero harm in taking a picture. But I would like to make a distinction between taking a photo now and then, and trying to document every event in your life. It seems that through Facebook albums, Instagram, and Twitter, our society as a whole is trending towards the latter, and this is dangerous.
Each time we try to document every party, game, dinner, hike, or anything we do, we take ourselves out of the moment. Instead of being present, we are thinking about the future: about how we can post the picture, who will see it, who will like it. We can have a much richer and more satisfying experience by not focusing on preserving each moment for the future, but by being fully there in the present.
My challenge to each of us (including myself) is the next time you want to take a picture of something, don’t. Instead, focus on the time you are in, the people there, the beautiful things you see; be grateful for all that is around you. I think by making an intentional effort to try this, we can make life a richer experience for ourselves and others.