Here’s a paradox: we are a people obsessed with visiting the world’s most alluring sites and experiencing the most important events in person; and yet, though we travel more eagerly and easily than ever, fewer of us end up seeing things with our own eyes. Take yourself to any place of beauty, or indeed any event that draws a crowd. Look around for a moment and you’ll see a solemn-faced, dull-eyed crowd with one arm collectively raised in cultic devotion. Each hand clutches a phone, and each phone cameos as camera. But what makes this Pavlovian response to All Things Worth Seeing so weird is that these have-a-go reporters are focused intently upon their tiny phone screens: even when only metres away, they fail to see the action with their own eyes. Being there no longer means seeing there.
Well, what does it matter if everyone is so keenly playing street reporter? Isn’t it a splendid thing that seemingly every event on the planet is now effortlessly recorded by anyone with a phone – that is, anyone from the developed world? Not at all, I’d say. Now and then, we do of course benefit from the quick-thinking filming of some exceptional event that would otherwise have no objective record. But these videos that successfully extend the scope of CCTV and institutional reporting are a tiny fraction of what’s being recorded every hour, every minute, every second worldwide.
Instead, we are paying a price for this perverse practice. Here are three sad – even disturbing – effects of our filming fetish. First, phone-wielders establish a boundary between themselves and the events unfolding, transforming them from present witnesses to mere closer-than-thou screen-gawpers. Since their eyes fail to see the action unmediated, they are in some senses not really there at all. People boast at being at that gig, or seeing the actual Mona Lisa at a few yards’ remove. But the digital proof they shove in your face ends up confirming that they, just like you, instead squinted at these spectacles through plastic. In thinking of their film’s future, the present moment passed them by.
Second, these ubiquitous recorders of all and sundry seem to have forgotten the purpose of what they are up to. You do have to wonder what all their data-collection is for. Millions of hours of footage, billions of photos; even the internet can’t keep up with the surging surfeit. What secondary audience needs 20,000 versions of oblique, wobbly and tinny footage of an event already being filmed professionally? Or take Cambridge, where I live. Thousands of tourists stream each day from their coaches, snaking up the medieval streets. A good portion – and among the Chinese tourists perhaps half – are filming their movements continuously: a bin here, a bench there, the occasional passing bus. Yes, wonderful architecture flits onto camera now and then, but these are rare interruptions of otherwise (literally) pedestrian fare. Perhaps there is an audience back home that will strap in for six hours of footage per diem; but, even if there is, their host won’t be able to give any wider context beyond what he, like they, saw through this paltry, often pointless, window into the world.
Third, and most worryingly, by privileging the framing and focus of their film with oh-so-steady hand, their engagement is limited in body as well as sight. If they became involved in the fray, the thinking runs, then who would do the filming? Won’t somebody please think of the Youtube channel! That there are dozens – and in many cases hundreds or thousands – recording exactly the same event seems not to register. But when I see videos of street fights, abuse on public transport or painful accidents, I can’t help pausing to think about the person actually filming them. Isn’t it a warped response to a moment of emergency or high drama to reach for the phone camera rather than to reach out to help – or, you know, use the phone as a phone? Often there won’t be a word of support spoken from these alarming film-zombies: talking from behind the camera would really spoil the audio.
So, let’s reset to keeping phones in pockets. If you’re lucky enough to see something truly beautiful or remarkable, look at it, savour it and let your senses drink it in. If instead a sudden problem arises, offer what hand you can. Once you’ve done what humans are built to do, yes, happily film and click until your fingers fall off. But don’t expect anyone – including yourself – to want to look at them.