Let’s Ban Smartphones

(commentary)

It’s a weekend evening on the Las Vegas strip. The 150,000 hotel rooms in town are pretty much all booked, and thus there are hundreds of thousands of folk walking about, most of them concentrated on sidewalks on either side of the miles-long strip. 

Indeed, it’s wall to wall people from street edge to building edge, and as far as you can see forward and back. It’s like a constantly moving rave: music, booze, drugs, barkers, entertainment, and a host of other things assaulting one’s senses. Without actually consciously doing so, your body begins to sway with the rhythms of the crowd around you.

Oh, and did I mention the selfie sticks poking you in the sides and back, sometimes the face? Or the fact that now that everyone carries a competent camera with them all the time, they all stop to take pictures constantly? 

If one wanted to walk from Spot A on the strip to Spot B, one would have to dodge these constantly stopping-to-selfie folk. They stop in front of you, they take up room to get their selfies (or somewhat more rarely these days: posed otherlies), then they stay in your way while they show the image they just shot to the friends and family they’re walking with, and then continue to stay in your way while they figure out what social site they’re going to post it to and with what pithy comment. 

US NV Las-Vegas Aug-2015 XT10 43943.jpg

Okay, I’m exaggerating. A bit. But one thing I’ve noticed in the last couple of years is that wherever we have crowds, we now have the smartphone camera phenomena to deal with. In an audience somewhere? The people in front of you will be holding their smartphone over their head to get an image and blocking your view. I guess we need to grow taller. Visiting a famous and popular place? You can get a photo yourself, but you will have to tolerate dozens of people taking photos in your photo, because they’re everywhere, and if one leaves, another arrives. I guess we need to go to less famous places. 

And yes, I’ve got my tongue in cheek. A bit. I generally want to encourage people to take images. But we’re getting dangerously close to making some forms of images meaningless. 

I’m pretty sure that—maybe with the exception of Sony and Fujifilm, since both companies have significant revenues driven from smartphone sales—that the camera companies for once are reading something I’ve written on my site and nodding their heads in complete agreement. “Yes, ban smartphones” they are saying. Maybe they’ll sell more “regular” cameras, they’re thinking.

But the problem isn’t what kind of camera that’s selling. The problem is a very typical problem with all technology: when it’s invented we all believe that it will be used for the greater good and solve previously unsolvable problems and will cure world hunger and end all wars. Okay, maybe not the last two. But still, when television was finally embraced and took off here in the US after World War II, we were so sure it would be used for educational purposes and change public understanding that we dedicated a huge portion of the airwaves to non-profit, educational, and public interest stations. We required all for-profit television stations to serve in the public interest, which included offering an hour of news each evening. 

Look where that ended up. Yes, we got Sesame Street (now involved in a muppet migration to cable and HBO), but we also ended up with 24-hour news stations that actually rarely produce news and instead like to air not-even-high-schoolish debates between extreme positions that are indefensible, solely because it’s entertaining. Entertaining to whom? Idiots? 

During my break I binge-watched The Newsroom. If you haven’t seen this HBO show, I can heartily recommend you do so. The first season is available for free on Amazon Prime if you’re so inclined. It’s a compelling, brilliantly-acted, intelligently-scripted, nuanced, and cautionary tale about something that is actually important: news. Amazingly, that first season of the program actually even manages to cover news we might have glossed over in the past decade, all while entertaining us with the drama.  

How’s that little mini recommendation fit into this commentary? Simple: I take photos for a higher reason than just to entertain myself. News ought to be covered for a higher reason than entertainment. Technologies should be enablers of something more than entertainment. Aaron Sorkin and his Newsroom crew and cast got that. 

I fear that all the smartphone cameras are dumbing down our imagery. The whole notion of “selfie” is a little disturbing, too. I was in Silicon Valley producing products that never existed before back in the 1980’s, and I was always disturbed by the fact that we got branded as being producers of the “me decade.” If the 1980’s were the me decade the 10’s are the LOOK AT ME decade. Yes, I put those words in bold and larger letters to make a bigger distinction between the previous “me” decade and the current one. 

Let me move on in my arguments to add another point. For most of my life now I have not entered contests or accepted awards. Sure, doing so might bolster my ego (it also might deflate it were I not to win any). But my ego doesn’t need any bolstering. I think I have a pretty good sense of self. 

Which brings me back to all those selfies on smartphones being socially shared: the Look At Me decade appears to be triggered by low self-esteem. People are sharing pictures of themselves with others because they fear they won’t be noticed otherwise. Let me be clear: I’ll notice you whether you share a selfie with me or not. I’ll notice you more if you do something exceptional or useful.

My fear is that images are becoming people’s reality, and the bulk of those images are smartphone selfies (though I should note I saw a lot of GoPros on a stick on the Vegas Strip, too, so we have to add moving selfie to the list). These people didn’t actually go to Vegas unless they shared selfies of themselves in front of every casino attraction, apparently. They didn’t have anything important to show you other than themselves.

So I’m going to give you a photo assignment. 

Go take a photo today. One that doesn’t include you in it. One that shows the world something it needs to see. One that shows how you view the world. One that is meaningful, poignant, interesting, educational, and yes, maybe even entertaining. Let’s all show the world that images matter. (Uh oh. No, don’t start using the hash tag #imagesmatter and attach it to a selfie ;~) 

Take a photo today. One that helps the world see. 

Take a photo today. You can even use a smartphone if you leave the selfie stick at home. 

© Thom Hogan 2015 / All Rights Reserved bythom.com  @bythom #bythom