NPF: IS THIS REAL LIFE?

A few years ago I had the good fortune to attend the Super Bowl, which was being held in Tampa that year. Since the Cardinals lost – there is a certain Steelers linebacker whose name cannot be spoken among my family – there was no reason to stick around after the game to watch the victory celebration and the handing out of various trophies. As we (and the rest of the Cardinals fans in attendance) filed slowly and somewhat sadly out of the stadium, I noticed something very odd about the people who were sticking around. Of the Steelers fans remaining to watch the celebration, a good half of them were holding up a smartphone. That is, they were either snapping pictures or, more commonly, shooting video. So they were watching an LCD screen showing them events that were happening directly in front of them.

I've never forgotten that – the mental image of people who paid thousands of dollars to experience something in person and then not watching it so that they might have a terrible, shaky, low-quality video of it (I really question the watchability of a phone video taken from the third deck of an outdoor stadium at night). Don't get me wrong, I take pictures of things on occasion. But I have a strong preference for actually experiencing something that is happening around me rather than missing it because I'm trying to take a picture of it. Pictures are nice memories. You know what else is a nice memory? Actually seeing it happen and, you know, having a thing to remember.

Last week at a parade – for a certain Cup named after a certain Lord – I saw the exact same thing, only four years later and a thousand times worse. Every single person in attendance seemed to be holding a cameraphone, all of which were thrust skyward when the parade came near. So now everyone has a shitty picture of everyone else's hand holding up a phone. And no one actually saw the parade. Sounds like fun!

On Thursday evening I'm willing to bet that you saw more than a few people holding up phones trying to take pictures or videos of fireworks. Why? Why would anyone even consider doing that let alone actually do it? Even if your video turned out well (note: it won't), how is watching a cellphone video of fireworks going to be entertaining? Even if your pictures came out (note: they won't), are you going to look at pictures of fireworks? Are you going to reminisce about the one that went "BOOOOM!" with all your friends? Why? WHY? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?

But by all means, keep distracting the rest of us by waving your bright screens around in our faces. It enhances the experience for everyone.

45 thoughts on “NPF: IS THIS REAL LIFE?”

  • The record is more important than the event. All throughout the 80s, Americans mocked Japanese tourists for the (often quite justified) stereotype of being more concerned with taking pictures of their vacation than the vacation itself, but then the Japanese got sick and tired of those weak-ass jokes, put a camera on everyone's phone, and boom–not so funny anymore, is it, smartasses? Now who's the stereotype?

    Parents in particular are the worst where this phenomenon is concerned. As Louis CK remarked in his latest special, all the parents at every recital are holding up a barrier between them and their children. Alternatively, there's the Carlin comment on the same behavior: "Doesn't anyone just *remember* anything anymore?"

    No. We don't. And I'd like to make some larger point about the skepticism of American culture, particularly in the wake of Photoshop and the internet–the whole "Pics or it didn't happen" attitude. But I think it's just people trying to make their lives matter by doing the thing that gets done to things that matter: recording it. Your life and, say, Beyonce's life are distinguished by the fact that every aspect of hers is recorded–so, if you record *your* life, you must be important too! It's sad–it's the behavior of sad, unhappy people who are desperate to matter–who think that enjoying something isn't enough, and need somehow to feel important as well.

    But the joke's on them/us–remember vacation slides? Yeah, nobody wanted to look at yours, and nobody still does, even if they move and have audio.

  • I don't attend sports events, and my recent gathering of friends to watch fireworks was blessedly absent of cameraphones (though they pulled them out plenty during the pre-party to check messages). However, I do see the same thing when I go to my kids' music performances–tons of parents watching the concert through their cameras instead of watching their actual kids for the five minutes it takes them to play Frere Jacques terribly. I am also a public school orchestra teacher, and often turn around to talk about the ensemble and piece and face a bunch of phones in the air, and it is really off-putting knowing that my blather will be most likely saved for life (or until they forget to transfer their video file after the technology goes extinct or the machine breaks). Plus, a young music concert is best remembered for the immediate experience and rewards. Listening to it later in all of its tinny-speakered, 60% under-practiced and under-rehearsed glory is not as fun and memorable as it sounds.

  • Hey, we've been encouraged to self-actualize through mindless consumerism for generations, and more recently by watching "celebrities" sort their sock drawers via the magic of reality teevee.

    It makes sense that once the tech made it doable, we'd move to experiencing things only to the extent that we could instantly turn around and show our friends that We Were There. A simulacrum of experience and existence.

  • Concerts.

    I have friends who work lights at concerts. Talented folks, working hard to enhance the experience of seeing and hearing your favourite songs performed live by your favourite artists, only to have their efforts negated by anywhere between 200 and 20000 brainless fucks holding up a fucking phone.

    Last time I saw a live band, someone was holding up a fucking ipad. A full sized fucking ipad. He was standing in the fucking third row. He got away with about half a song before someone offered to help him store it in his rectum if he couldn't find somewhere else out of the way to stash it. The look of bewildered hurt on the fucker's face showed that it had not even crossed his mind that the people behind him might object to this behaviour.

  • middle seaman says:

    I have difficulty understanding what is the the core issue in the post. Is it that it's quite ridiculous for thousands of people to record video of events thereby missing the experience? Or may it is quite bizarre for people to behave against their own good?

    A possible motivation for the video/no experience interpretation may be that people enjoy the act of collecting and recording events more than they enjoy events.

    As for the 2nd interpretation, we always works against our own interests. Otherwise how do you explain us voting for two parties, one wants us all to be practically slaves while the other does want that but couldn't care less about it.

  • Geez, who gives a shit if anybody records stuff. Yes, the ipad thing is overboard, but if you want to experience real life then experience it. If you want to record it, record it. My only requirement: don't ruin it for me. Personally, I record things that I would like to share with my family who can't be there with me. I don't record bands because I want to experience them. My son's violin solo at the high school orchestra concert will never be repeated. His grandparents live 2 thousand miles away. So they get to see it and he gets to see it. Yes I recorded it. Besides, there are ways to record stuff and still experience it. Like putting a high quality, unobtrusive video camera on a mono-pod.

  • I was Googling around for the famous "2005 vs. 2013" comparison of the crowds at election of a new Pope, and learned it is actually a bit misleading: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/14/viral-pope-election-photos-nbc-news_n_2878146.html

    The "before" photo showed John Paul II's funeral procession, not Benedict's election. So people might have kept the phones shut out of respect.

    Still, there's a lot more filming than there used to be, and in a lot of cases it's not about capturing video to watch later. For a sporting event or parade you can find something a lot better online. As others have said, it's about signalling to your fellow monkeys.

    So there's a social aspect — if 20000 people are all waving their phones in the recognised signal for "hey, this is awesome and needs to be recorded" then it will trigger some switches in your brain and might tempt you to join in. Peer pressure is a powerful force, even (maybe especially) for doing stupid and pointless things.

  • Anonymouse says:

    Went to a small family barbecue yesterday, and one of the attendees spent the day updating Facebook…telling everyone about the barbecue. He spent more time on his smartphone tapping away than actually experiencing the barbecue.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Not to worry, all.

    Soon, with Google Glass, your new "eyeglasses" will record what you're really seeing, storing it, and sending it out over the internet – no more waving phones around, or holding them up.

    Soon, you won't have to see what you're really seeing from your sh*tty viewpoint.
    Google Glass will, for a small Google Charge, allow you to be able to Google Choose whose viewpoint you want to see from (with, hopefully, a small Google Commission, for that person).

    It won't be long before all major events like this, any concert you go to, and parade, will be experienced from a "3rd Person's POV."

    And after that, why bother living out your boring life, sex, and all, yourself.
    You can take the POV of any number of millions of people's experiences, instead of living out your own.

    And guys, you'll never be bored again, sitting around alone with the TV on.
    Not when you can knock back a drink, grab a doob, cut a few lines, inflate the dolly, and pay $50.00 for the rights to have Charlie Sheen's POV for 3 hours – anything longer than that, and you'll probably be dead, since only Charlie has the kind of capacity to party-on longer than that.

    And ladies, you'll have your set of choices, too.

    Life, from the "3rd Person's POV" – brought to you, by Google Glass.
    But you'll need plenty of Google Cash.

  • Louis CK has done several quality bits about this phenomenon, most recently on his HBO special 'Oh my God'. They always resonate with me as this is something I have never and will never understand.

  • Recently I went home from work and there was this stretch of sidewalk where two people not 30 m apart very nearly walked into me because they were walking while never taking their faces off their smartphones. I have a colleague who cannot have a conversation over lunch without constantly consulting the internet on his to look up if he remembered something correctly. These electronic gimmicks are a blight.

    So far I have avoided getting an internet capable/camera phone, pad or tablet myself. Got an old Nokia that can send text messages, save a few contacts and, well, phone. Somehow I don't feel like I miss anything.

  • Benny Lava says:

    This is all about conspicuous consumption. You take the pics and videos to put on your Facebook, tumblr, or vine to show your "friends" that you were there and make them jealous.

  • Also, the question is whether all that garbage will still be available to so many of us once fossil fuels start seriously running out and rising demand for food meets accelerating climate change, soil erosion and overuse of freshwater reserves. "Problems" like the one discussed here may disappear automatically once real problems appear on the horizon.

  • For many people, recording something reduces people's skepticism that, as cake says, proves:

    "That proves you were there,
    That you heard of them first?"

    So, suppose there's an exceptional event—an misfired firework, a player vomiting into the cup, etc— a video or snapshot ON YOUR PHONE proves that you were there.

    I can't answer about why you should care.

    At the same time, every time my extended family gets together, there are photos. It used to be, that I'd show up with my semi-pro photography equipment, set up, arrange the shot, take it, and print copies for everyone, which I'd mail to them. Even though it was a virtual certainty that I'd get a better shot than the Kodak Instamatic "you had", and even though I was going to distribute the prints, there would be 20 shots with "now with MY camera". Somehow, owning the camera that took the shot was important to folks. I always figured it was because they didn't trust that I'd mail the prints. But now, now that we have digital cameras, and photo-sharing websites, and e-mail, and social networking (which we used to arrange the event in the first place), everyone still needs a photo taken with their crappy camera phone. [Note: not all camera phones are crappy, these days, but many are.] So maybe it was that they didn't trust my skill? No…I have friends who are professional photographers, who shoot weddings, who will actually carry a "sign-up sheet to get the electronic shots", and yahoos will STILL insist on shooting with their cameraphone (which often harms the staged shots, since there are multiple flashes, and distractions, and delays).

    Somehow, it's a control or pride thing. The photo and quality are less important. What is important is that "my device captured it."

  • J. Dryden has it right. Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer" identified this contemporary craving to validate our existence through media 50 years ago — it's why people still clamor for a glimpse of in-the-flesh celebrities (who, by virtue of their ubiquitous images, are more "real" than we are), and it's the motivation behind every "Hi Mom!" ever mouthed at a random TV camera. All that's changed is now we're the stars & directors of our own home made feature films. The middle-man is increasingly cut out.

  • It's just one more piece of the modern, ubiquitously-connected, your-inspid-life-is-really-important-trust-us mentality of American society (and possible other 1st world nations, though I have no experience with them and wouldn't know).

    People feel the need to capture everything they see on their shitty camera phones for the same reason they feel the need to belch out 140 characters about the earth-shattering importance of the shit they just took, or the burger they just ate — modern society has told them that they are special and important, and they need to remind everyone how special and important they are through one or more of the six gazillion "You are special and important and here is a service dedicated just to you and your amazing life" services that have sprung up. They're all just capitalizing on the narcisism-as-raison-d'etre trend. People have facebook accounts and crappy twitter feeds and live their lives looking through their smartphone LCDs because other people look at them weird if they don't — believe me, I know. Every time somebody asks me about facebook or twitter and I inform them that I don't have accounts with either service I get an odd look of disbelief. Every time somebody asks me what kind of phone I have and I cite a Samsung model from 6+ years ago that makes calls, plays MP3s AND NOTHING ELSE, they're gobsmacked at the notion that I haven't bought into to the latest meaningless gizmotoy that does absolutely nothing I can't already do (and likely better!) on some other device I already own.

    In the end? We're still just monkeys with 'better' brains. Instead of picking bugs out of our fur and showing it to everyone, we pick shitty, grainy photos out of our phones and show it to everyone.

  • To sum up my little rant, I turn to James Gleick in his excellent book "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything", sometimes also known as "FSTR". Speaking on the subject of people that go about with their noses perpetually shoved into their cell phone screens, he observes the following:

    "It is the way of keeping contact with someone, anyone, who will reassure you that you are not alone. You may think you are checking on your portfolio, but deep down you are checking on your existence."

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    Twenty years ago I took some students to our local TV station to see the operation. We were allowed on the hot set to watch them do the news at noon. We were read the riot act about standing behind the tape line, no noise at all, what lights meant they were on the air, etc, etc. (There were still human studio camera operators then, BTW)

    Anyhow, the kids were wonderful, they met the well-known local neswsies, etc. But even then I noticed, when the light went red, and the show went live, I was the only one watching the anchors. Even in the studio, the students were all watching the anchors on the studio monitor.

  • anotherbozo says:

    My wife and I enjoy our vacations (usually in some European city) and collect post cards along the way. Why take photographs, we reason, when professionals have dedicated all their time and resources to just that? (Duomo at sunset, Duomo at dawn, during a storm, on a feast day, etc.) Furthermore you can remember much more vividly without pictures; we took roll upon roll in China and now I'm not sure if I'm remembering the view or the damned photos of the view. Memory is a funny thing as it is; a neurologist once told Gore Vidal that when you remember something the second time you're remembering the first time you remembered, not the event itself. So we dilute enough already. Just that our memories are stereoscopic and multisensory and not even a full-scale film camera can record the smell of pine needles in Yosemite that acccompanies the sensation of the big trees…

    As a painter I hate reproductions with a particular passion, especially since significant parts of a lot of recent painting don't translate into pixels or flat formats of any kind. Yet people insist on a record and wind up believing that the record is the whole deal, that the color is accurate, etc. (Often gallery graphics include partial views, details of the work, etc. to sidestep that presumption.)

    Maybe the iPhone photo-record is just a phase; I keep hoping to see it go away. Except where documentation of police brutality, accidents, etc. is concerned. There, the smartphone was a real game changer, and hallelujah!

  • In the late 80s, I was working with a band in NY that had explicit, LARGE TYPE posters declaring that any recording devices would be confiscated. Two minutes into the concert, we spotted a guy monkeying with his video camera, so we took it. After the show, he was very weirdly confrontational and demanded its return, especially the tape which had other "important material" on it. We gave him the camera back, and agreed to return the tape the following night, after we erased the footage of the band. We gave him a few wise words about enjoying the event itself, being present with what was actually happening, etc. and sent him on his way.

    So we take the tape home and press play. There were a few minutes of footage of the inside of his backpack, then some footage of the venue ceiling (with some muffled audio of the band) and finally, about 30 seconds of the band before we took the camera away. And then static. And then footage of this guy humping away at his girlfriend (we recognized her from the concert). We were utterly amazed…this guy was so committed to preserving "experiences" to tape that he made sure to capture everything, even his most intimate moments.

    And he actually came back and picked up the tape the next night. The girlfriend was not with him.

  • I find it moderately irritating when I'm at a show and have to watch a band through a forest of phones / tablets. However, I do recognise that some people's fannishness extends to taking show footage and photos and uploading them and discussing them. I'm slightly intrigued by the fact that it still seems culturally inappropriate to do this at the ballet / opera / theatre / comedy.

    As to how people document their lives, I don't really have much of an opinion. I take photos of things that I find interesting, or things that I think may later be evocative of an experience. (I also take photos of things like book reviews in hard copy newspapers or magazines, because it's quicker than writing a note to myself.) I share images that I think people might find interesting, or that illustrate a point that I'm making.

    Having a digital camera on us all the time, and the means of cheaply and quickly sharing the images with individuals or groups, means that we can communicate visually as well as in text. Services like Flickr mean that we can tag photos of marginal happenings, that would never appear in even the most local of newspapers, and create a record. We might deplore some of the things other people do with this possibility (I have a nice photo of seventy people simultaneously taking a photo of the Venus de Milo), but screw us for being snooters.

  • I remember the first time I went to an NHL game, it seemed so unreal. While my girlfriend (now wife) and I were walking to our seats, I looked down one of the walkways to the ice and I recall seeing Marty Brodeur's #30 through the back of the net during warmup. It was so cool, but I recall being weirded out a bit because my brain automatically "formatted" the view, and it felt like I was watching it on TV.

    Then, during the game, I found myself watching the action on the center ice scoreboard screens for extended stretches of time, instead of the play going on in front of me.

    Stupid brain.

  • Hear, hear. (Here here?) And @J. Dryden, chucklesnort; ably put. A few notes:

    You miffed the "Bohemian Rhapsody" nod in the title by a single word.

    To everyone making the cranky-old-man snarks, YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM.

    Not that I'm accusing you of biting their style, but Buzzfeed made this point a couple weeks ago in spectacular fashion.

    And only slightly of substance, this is exactly why I stayed off of Facebook and Twitter and resisted getting a cell phone for as long as I did. I'm sure I wouldn't be the only person who could tell a story of meeting long-lost friends for dinner, only to lose a night's conversation as they checked in on Foursquare, posted pictures of the meal on Instagram, liked thirty-seven things on Facebook, and in general so their smartphone could mediate their virtual lives for them. People today—and not kids, but all sorts of people—are lightning quick to adopt whatever new device or platform seems to be hip at the moment, but if it ever occurs to them to ask whether and how this is going to change the way they talk, act, and think, it's usually only long after the fact, and usually in the middle of the weary realization that they don't actually like using Facebook anymore but couldn't realistically manage their lives without it.

    Of course, I'm typing this on a laptop in an i-cafe in order to distract myself as I procrastinate the writing I'm supposed to be doing, so maybe I'm an unsuitable messenger. Damn you, Tim Berners-Lee, for my flabby determination!

  • It's interesting how deep you can get into the recording mindset, though. About ten years ago I was co-captain of a ballroom dance team, and one of the things we did to help us improve was video our competition performances for later review. When it started, I would basically just set the thing recording on a wide view and then just leave it; but I increasingly got into zooming our competitors, following them round the floor… it was close to a year of this before it dawned on me that I was no longer actually watching the competition. Once I'd made that realisation I could back myself out of the problem, but in the interval it just never even occurred to me how much I was removing myself from the moment.

    There's a moment in one of the Douglas Adams Hitchhikers books—the fourth, I think—where the protagonists are making love while flying through the air (don't ask) and land on a plane wing. A little old lady on the plane sees this out the window, but nobody else notices. She considers pointing it out, or taking a picture, or something like that, but then decides: no, this is all mine. It's been so long since I read it that I'm probably munging the details, but I think of that moment semi-regularly when I need to remind myself that not everything needs to be recorded, or saved, or shared; enjoy the moment, and then enjoy its memory, and move on.

  • Big Sister says:

    Any of you see EXIT THROUGH THE GIFTSHOP? It's about the phenomenon reported with stunning commentary and a fabulous soundtrack. The British street artist Banksy made it. Excellent documentary.

  • How is it that with all these smart phones, no one ever thinks to whip one out when they see fucking bigfoot.

  • Sat in a meeting the other day laughing silently to myself. Eleven people around the table, mid-meeting, and everyone except me and the person currently talking was fingersliding or tapping on their cell or iPad.

    But this sort of thing isn't new. It was a quarter century ago when I pissed off my relatives by banning those big, shoulder-sitting video cameras from my wedding.

  • I spent a lot of time in France before the advent of cell phones and I always enjoyed the French sociability around the dinner table, the witty conversations, the pointed political remarks. The last time I was I a Paris restaurant, I sat next to a fore some, all of whom were speaking on their own phones. This went on through most of the meal. I live now in one of the most beautiful areas in the US, towering Douglas firs and hemlocks, white-water streams with tumbling waterfalls, and while its nice to see my co-citizens walking in this beauty, it distresses me to see their dead eyed focus on the cell phone conversation they are having. I do not think that cell phones for either talking or video are a positive contribution to our cultural life, but then I'm a card carrying Luddite.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    Anotherbozo: Well said and I hope it may be just a phase, you know like the Second Baby syndrome, where you take a million pics of the firstborn and a couple of the second, culminating in the first birthday.

    I refuse to buy a cellphone and am thus the only Free Woman in Canada.

  • Wow, 20,000 people with cell phones. Well, it could have been cigarette lighters or candles.

    I live near a national park, and one of the things people are expected to do in a national park is to take pictures, along with the hiking, gawking, not feeding animals and so on. Sure, a few folks spend a bit more time than makes sense looking through a viewfinder or at an LCD, but all that amazing scenery is there for a reason.

  • I'm not sure what that reason is,Kaleberg, but turning an experience of beauty and wonder into second-rate stuff is not a reason I would promote.

  • Gerald McGrew says:

    Sheesh but you guys sound like a bunch of cynical old farts!

    "These dang kids today with their fancy phones and pads! It's evil I tells ya! EVIL!"

    You know why I take pics or video of my kids' band concert and soccer game? So the grandparents who live 3,000 miles away can see it too. So I can see it again when the kids have grown up and moved out. So they can see themselves on stage.

    Now, I do realize that like all things, there's a point where it gets to be too much. I don't need to record the entire event, because as Ed notes, that means I didn't actually get to see it. One song, one goal, one snippet is enough to get a sense of what went on.

    But man…you guys at G&T sure do love to bitch about things!

  • DocAmazing says:

    'Bout ten years ago, I was in Maui. I joined a group going to watch the sun rise from the peak of Haleakala. Got up at dark o'clock and met the van; trundled up the mountain, met two or three other groups at the summit. We all looked west. Just as the first pale pink streaks appeared on the horizon, dozens of flashes went off, completely dazzling me and destroying my night vision. I'm sure the sunrise was lovely; I couldn't see it.

  • George Carlin, deceased says:

    "This country is finished, it's been sliding downhill a long time, and everybody's got a cellphone that makes pancakes so they don't wanna rock the boat."

  • Just one thing: Owning a six year old phone is not exactly a sign of prescience or some kind of extraordinary restraint. Your ancient phone sucks balls, just admit it.

  • What good is a personal experience if you can't prove to someone else that you had it?
    If your esteem comes from within, then why call it low?

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