Life through a lens

This nice piece by my friend Craig Grannell on experiencing life through a smartphone screen reminded me of this, a column I did for .net in 2009.

I was visiting the BBC recently, and I arrived just after a large delegation of Japanese visitors. As I waited to be ushered inside, I watched the group unwittingly living up to the stereotype of gadget-wielding photography obsessives. They filmed and photographed the receptionists at work. They filmed and photographed the security guards. They filmed and photographed people coming in and out. Most of all, they filmed and photographed each other filming and photographing.

The first thing I thought was: I’m glad I don’t have to edit all that footage into something interesting. But my second thought was more serious. Photos and videos are hyperlinks to memories, icons that your brain double-clicks to bring back the full experience – the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of a happy day or a crappy one. Increasingly, though, we’re using gadgets to record the whole experience. That makes us passive observers, not active participants.

As soon as you start fiddling with a piece of technology, your attention is on the technology – so if you’re filming the bit of a gig where the singer hits those emotional highs, you’re removing yourself from the very thing you paid all that money to experience. When you tweet about the cute thing your kid just did, your attention’s on Twitter, on making your point in 140 characters, not on what your kid’s doing.  When you check email during a conversation, you’re temporarily tuning out the person or people you’re with. And when you film every waking moment you’re giving your attention to the framing, to the focus, to the F-stop, to the battery warning light that’s flickering in the corner of the viewfinder.

What you’re not doing is experiencing the thing you’re photographing, or twittering about, or filming. You’re not paying attention to the sounds, the smells, all the little details that make the moment special and burn it into your brain. For all our fancy trousers and our clever gadgets we’re a fairly simple species, and our caveman minds weren’t designed for multitasking.

That means that your gadget – your iPhone, your HD camcorder, your Blackberry – is the digital watch in the Biblical epic, the Ford Mondeo in the costume drama. It’s the bit of the novel where the author suddenly addresses you directly. It’s the drunk who bumps into you at the rock gig. It’s the noisy crisp eater behind you in the cinema. It’s the faraway music that stops you sleeping. It’s the thief that steals your attention, ends the immersion, takes you out of the moment and leaves you outside, looking in.

Of course gadgets have their place, and the world would be a lot poorer without smartphones, camcorders and other devices. But we need to be careful, because if we give them too much of our attention, if we experience our entire lives through a lens or lit by a screen, we’re no longer creating hyperlinks. Instead, our photos, our Facebook updates and our tweets are dead links, shortcuts that can only ever lead to a mental Page Not Found.

I thought about this at last week’s Eels gig, when the woman next to me filmed the whole gig on her phone. As she watched the screen throughout, that means her video isn’t a reminder of what the gig was like; it’s a reminder of what filming the gig was like. It’s an important difference.