“Raise your hand when I say your name, and call out present.”
These days, millions of us could respond “not present.” It’s seemingly a contradiction, yet it’s anything but.
You know why.
We’re busy with one task and thinking of four others. We’re half listening to a spouse and planning the weekly checklist. We’re smiling at an event, but swishing or tapping. Our torsos are torqued and our fingers are flexed: We’re documenting rather than paying attention; we’re recording rather than absorbing.
Are Smartphones Really Necessary?
I was slow to purchase a smartphone – and that was intentional. I went from a nicely performing cell to a Blackberry and then, reluctantly, an iPhone.
I didn’t want the complexity. And I didn’t want to grow dependent.
Now as accustomed to my iPhone as all my friends, I understand its appeal – and also its dangers. It is oh-so-easy to become distracted, and oh-so-seductive to video this and tweet that.
This is hardly the first time I have touched on this theme and I am certainly not alone in doing so. Only a few days ago, in considering selfie culture, vanity and narcissism, I mused on snapshotting our lives for posterity (or our next feed) rather than living them (for the pleasure of the experience).
The Sunday Times Style Section features an excellent article on this phenomenon, addressing the topic from a number of perspectives. In “Is Just Being There Enough?” the answer, apparently, is no.
Alex Williams writes:
To live the moment or record the moment? It’s become a defining dilemma of the iPhone age.
Does Technology Compromise Being Present?
However, as easy as the iPhone has made it, we seem to have started down this slippery slope some 20+ years ago, with dragging our (then) high-priced video equipment and tripods not only to weddings, but straight into the delivery room with a “Hey, Honey… There’s the head!”
Guilty as charged when it comes to snapping too many photographs. Not Guilty when it comes to my wedding or the birth of my sons.
I nonetheless succumbed to the video recording trend in time for assorted high school awards ceremonies, two high school graduations, and thus far one college graduation. Like so many other parents, my attention has been divided between the pride in what is taking place and documenting it on digital media.
One of the examples Mr. Williams includes is not of the agreeable sort. He cites a frightening incident on a Jet Blue flight, a failed engine and smoke-filled cabin, and one passenger (Scott Welch, a sports photographer) who captured the experience, which then went viral.
Suffice it to say, documenting a terrifying event might provide the advantage of not being fully present. In fact, Mr. Williams explains Mr. Welch’s perspective:
… there are reasons beyond vanity to reach for your phone at life’s key moments.
Smart Technology and Societal Narcissism
While the article makes references to growing societal narcissism with regard to our (growing societal) multimedia preoccupations, as with most human behaviors, it’s not so simple.
As in the airline incident, documenting a dramatic situation may be helpful to others and can even seem a generous act, rather than the opposite. Practicality is another reason; I am a diminutive woman, I can rarely see what’s happening in a crowd, and by raising my arms with an iPhone (like so many others), after the fact I may be able to see more.
And last but not least, when we are stressed, harried, or exhausted – we may not be “present” with or without our digital devices in hand. So we record what is happening and hope to savor it when we have some down time.
Privacy is another issue in our smart technology-wielding pop culture. Some of us don’t mind a few photos now and then, but we don’t enjoy the prying eyes of strangers (or even friends) – especially on an off day or during a private moment. While celebrities may have the option of banning phones and tablets at their gatherings, what about the average Joe or Josephine, disheveled or hungover? What about the pal who thinks it’s funny to tap, trim and tweet? What about the teacher in front of his class, with iPad-armed students who document in silence and upload without permission?
On “Being There” and Being “Here”
We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time, effort and money reminding ourselves to be mindful, in the moment, go with the flow and so on. We attempt to be “here” even as our multitasking minds are drifting over there. Technology may be part of the cause, though surely our complicated lives more rightfully bear the brunt of that responsibility. Moreover, we all have times when we’re crunched with work and parenting and caring for elders, and being “anywhere but here” alleviates our stress.
We may also take off a few days (or weeks if we’re lucky), and documenting the experience may siphon off a small measure of its intensity, but we also return home with a record of our adventures to enjoy – for ourselves.
When the virtual overshadows the real, when the boundaries of privacy and propriety are transgressed, when we lose sight of what those boundaries are, when we foolishly document every single (good) moment we can rather than living every single (good) moment we can – “presence” is severely compromised. And that is the dangerous distance that seems to be narrowing, as we favor feeds over feelings and engagement over experience.
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