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Should We Live Life, Or Capture It?

Cell phones and social media may be changing the way we live our lives.
iStockphoto
Cell phones and social media may be changing the way we live our lives.
iStockphoto

A recent article in The New York Times explores the explosive wave of smartphone recordings of events, from the most meaningful to the most trivial.

Everyone is, or wants to be, the star of their own life, and the rage is on to capture every moment deemed meaningful. YouTube micro-stars have selfie videos that go viral within hours, like the recent one by journalist Scott Welsh who recorded from inside his JetBlue flight as oxygen masks came down due to a mechanical malfunction. If you are facing death, why not share your last moments with those you leave behind?

There is a side of it that makes sense; we all matter, our lives matter, and we want them to be seen, shared, appreciated. But there is another side that leads to a disengagement with the moment.

Are people forgetting to be present in the moment, scattering their focus by looking at life through a screen? Should you be living your life or living it for others to see it?

It is telling, however, that this all started before the cellphone revolution. Something happened between the private journal we kept locked in our drawer and the portable video camera. For example, in June 2001 I led a group of Dartmouth alumni on a cruise to see a total solar eclipse in Africa. On board were a crowd of "eclipse groupies," people who go around the world chasing eclipses. Once you see one you can understand why. A total solar eclipse is a deeply moving experience that awakens a primal connection with nature, linking us to something bigger and truly awesome about the world. It needs total commitment and focus of all senses. Yet, as totality approached, the ship's deck was a sea of cameras and tripods, as dozens of people prepared to photograph and videotape the four-minute-long event.

Instead of fully engaging with this most spectacular natural phenomenon, people chose to look at it from behind their cameras. I was shocked. There were professional photographers onboard and they were going to sell/give pictures away. But people wanted to take their pictures and videos anyway, even if they weren't going to be half as good. I went to two other eclipses, and it's always the same thing. No full personal engagement. The gadget is the eye through which they choose to see reality.

What cellphones plus social media have done is to make the archiving and the sharing of images amazingly easy and efficient. The reach is much wider and the gratification (how many "likes" a photo or video gets) is quantitative. Lives become a shared social event.

Now, there is a side of this that is fine, of course. We celebrate meaningful moments and want to share with those we care about. The problem starts when we stop fully participating in the moment because we have this urge to record it. Conan O'Brien, for one, complained that he can't even see people's faces when he performs anymore. "All I see is a sea of iPads," he said. Some celebrities are forbidding personal phones during their weddings. Nick Denton, head of Gawker, said to his guests: "You can tend to your virtual presence — and your Twitter and Instagram followers — the next day."

We can extend this to giving talks using Powerpoint or Keynote, as I can attest from personal experience. As soon as there is an illuminated screen out there, eyes move that way and the speaker becomes a hollow voice. No direct engagement is then possible. That's why I tend to use these technologies only minimally, to show pictures and graphs or put up meaningful quotes.

Without trying to sound too nostalgic (but sounding), there is nothing like eye-to-eye contact or the sharing of an experience through the real act of engaging in a conversation with friends and family. The gadgets are awesome, of course. But they should not define the way we live — only complement it.


Marcelo Gleiser's latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.

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