Pics or it Didn’t Happen

What changes faster, culture or technology? What makes you feel older faster, a new custom or a new artifact?

I think a lot about the ways that cellphones have changed our lives, and perhaps that’s because my peers and I straddle the advent of cellphone ubiquity. I got my first cell phone right before my 18th birthday and I was among the first to get one. I actually only got my first cell phone because I had moved out on my own and was living with around six roommates and it just wasn’t feasible to share a landline with that many roommates.

Getting my first cellphone at 18 means that I still haven’t lived with a cell phone for as long as I lived without one, which is something most people a little younger than me can’t say. I’m among the last people who can remember calling my friends’ houses and asking their parents if they could talk, and who showed up at my friends’ houses and knocked on the door to see if they wanted to hang out. Either thing would be unimaginable to people currently younger than 25.

Much has been made by folks older than me about the paradigm shift in social behavior that accompanied the advent of the cellphone, especially the smartphone. It truly does feel to me like an enormous change, but I wonder if that hypothesis will be borne out in the long-term or if it will turn out to be no bigger of a change than was caused by the telephone, the telegraph, email, &c.

I don’t want to ramble about cellphones for a long time because I think it’s a topic too big for this blog post. But I did want to talk about one feature of smartphones of which I have become hyper aware lately, which is the compulsion to take photo and video of everything. It has become more and more noticeable especially in the context of live music. When I go to shows now, at least half of the audience is watching the majority of the performance on their phones. When I go to see my favourite band, I try my hardest to always be in the very front row so as to avoid trying to see a vast sea of glowing screens between me and the musicians.

I’m not opposed to documenting important moments, and there are certainly moments in my life that I wish had been documented, but I also think there is something to be said for letting an experience and a memory be ephemeral. Documenting a moment always requires you to think about the documentation rather than the moment. You aren’t living in the experience as it happens because you’re trying to capture it to live in it later.

I don’t think that the drive to capture a moment — like any of the other impulses driven by the ubiquity of smartphones — is necessarily new, it’s just amplified by the fact that everyone can do it so easily now. But I do wonder about the psychological drive that causes someone to want to film their favourite band’s entire set rather than watch it. How many people actually watch those videos later? And if they do watch them later, do they make productive use of the video? Meaning, do they do things with the video that they couldn’t have done with the live experience? Do they watch and rewatch, zoom, pause, &c? If they don’t get more out of the video that they could’ve gotten out of the live experience, why film it? Do they even save the video or are most of them using something impermanent like Snapchat to broadcast the set to other people who aren’t there? If, in a hypothetical scenario, all of their Snapchat contacts were present at the show, would they still have felt the need to film it?

I don’t mean to place any kind of judgment on the act of filming necessarily, I just am curious about the impetus behind it. In general I support decisions made out of genuine enjoyment and am skeptical of decisions made out of compulsion or fear. Much has been made of millennials’ addiction to social media, and once again, that may or may not be borne out in the long-term. But I do wonder if it is possible for a person to know whether their use of smartphones and social media stems from a legitimate desire to enhance their lives through long-distance interaction or whether there is a compulsive need to avoid “missing out” by attempting to be interacting with everyone at once.

Or perhaps there is a fear that anything that is not documented is not permanent, anything not permanent is not real. That because we live in a world of constant documentation, anything that isn’t recorded in some capacity is thought of as not as real as something that has been photographed or filmed. If the most minute banal aspects of our day to day lives are documented, what can we say about a big event that isn’t?

“Pics or it didn’t happen” used to be an ironic challenge, but it seems that it has become the standard. If you can’t prove something happened with photos and video, you may as well not even tell the story.

I’ve tried to avoid the temptation to document everything that happens to me because the moment that I am pulling out my phone and adjusting the angle of the photo and checking the light level and focusing is a moment that I am not present, not actually engaged. I don’t ever want my favourite band to look at me in the audience and see a guy who appears to be more interested in his phone — an object I have on my person 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — instead of the musician I only get to see a couple times a year.

It may or may not be the case for everyone, but I would rather be living my life than documenting it to enjoy later.