Smartphones are everywhere. Go to a concert, and you’ll see thousands of glowing LCDs waving in the air as concertgoers try to snap a photo. Go to a museum and you’ll see people wandering from exhibit to exhibit, taking pictures of what’s on display, often at the expense of experiencing it firsthand. Go to a child’s school recital, and watch nearly every parent filter that moment through the 4-inch screen of their phone. Are smartphones replacing memories? That’s the question the BBC’s Stephen Smith asks in this video:
The explosion of smartphones and tablets among the general public has been quick and thorough. The BBC report shows a crowd at the Vatican in 2005 at an event memorializing Pope John Paul II. One cell phone can be identified for sure, there are maybe two or three others visible in the crowd. They cut to a photo in the same location in 2013, welcoming Pope Francis, and the difference is staggering. The glow of devices hovers over the crown like a swarm of fireflies; it’s just not possible to count how many there are.
Perhaps nothing in the video speaks more to the rapid propagation of smartphones than the interview with Jay McGuiness, a member of the boy band Wanted. At 23 years old, McGuiness laments to the BBC that going to concerts isn’t “like it was when I was a teenager.”
So, are we missing out on experiences in favor of recording and sharing them? Smartphones make it so easy to record any moment, at any time. I can pull my iPhone out of my pocket and in a matter of seconds it’s a camera, ready to digitally record my next cherished memory. That can’t be so bad, right? As with all things, moderation is the key. Sandy Nairne, the Director of the UK’s National Portrait Gallery, explains:
I think, at certain moments, getting out a smartphone actually will make some people look more closely. As long as it’s not the only thing, as long as people do things around it to savor the moment, think of the moment. I don’t think it’s a substitute for memory, I think it can maybe even enhance it.
Here’s a case in point: last week, I gave a reading of my non-photography writing to a group of people, some friends. It was short—five minutes at the most—and when I had finished a friend ran over to show me the picture he’d snapped of me and put on Facebook while I was up at the podium. After thanking him for his act of guerilla promotion, I asked him if he enjoyed the reading.
“The parts I heard were really good,” he told me.
He’d missed most of what I read because he was too busy cropping the photo, uploading it, writing a caption, and tagging me so my other friends could see. And perhaps that’s the ultimate litmus test to see if you’re taking things too far. Look at the pictures you’ve taken at any given time and place in your smartphone’s photo library. Do you have specific and fond memories of the details depicted in those photos? If you’ve preserved a moment in pictures, you’ll have created an enhancement to the memory. Do you mostly recall the time you spent taking the picture and, possibly, editing and uploading it to share with your friends? Then you’ve just preserved the moment of preserving the moment in pictures, and your photos are a reminder of something you missed.