On the day of the San Francisco Giants World Series parade, I made my way to the corner of California and Montgomery where I was sure I had a pretty good vantage to watch the players roll by in their rubber-wheeled cable cars. My wife was thinking the same thing about her view as she held our four year-old son on her shoulders on the opposite side of the street.
Then the procession started and thousands of arms extended towards the sky. And just like that, none of us could see the parade. Only our phones could. And what did all those phones see? The players’ video-recording devices staring right back at them.
Nearly everyone was distracted from the moment.
Don’t get me wrong. I needed my iPhone on that day. I was walking from my office and my wife and son were driving in from across the city. Without a steady series of calls and text messages, I never would have gotten a glimpse of the only visual I’ll remember from that day: My son’s fantastically handsome smile as he awaited the start of the parade.
But once the parade began, my iPhone went from being a useful tool to being the object of my deep compulsion. I knew the crowd shots and player photos I’d take using my phone’s camera would be mediocre. I consciously reminded myself that any extended-arm video I shot would pale in comparison to the footage I’d see on the news that night. Most importantly, I knew this gathering of thousands of people in my city’s streets was really more about experiencing the energy than recording the visuals.
All of that pre-parade analysis went out the window once the first band marched past me. The recording device was just too close. I couldn’t resist. I took about forty photos and shot about twenty minutes of video.
Along with thousands of others — including the players themselves — I captured some digital snapshots, but I missed the moment. We walk around with what seems like infinite access in our pockets, and yet, we often experience our lives through two-inch screens.
Of course, the impulse to take photos at special events predates the camera phone. Most people want to get a few decent shots at a kid’s birthday or during vacations. But the persistent proximity of digital cameras has made us much more indiscriminate about choosing which moments are worth recording. Because our cameras are so close at hand, we’ve developed a fear of missing the photo op. But we should be a lot more afraid of missing real life moments as they pass across the screens on our digital devices.
I needed my phone to get to my son. Then I stared at my phone for thirty minutes and missed the experience we were there for in the first place. James Bennett gets at this technological dichotomy in his recent Atlantic piece: “It seems part of the contemporary condition to feel simultaneously blessed and cursed, liberated and trapped, by technology.”
It’s a common conflict. A few decades ago, my friend Isaac and I cut school and boarded a bus to watch the 49ers parade. This was before cell phones and neither of us had a camera. I don’t remember a single visual from that day. But I do remember the feeling. I especially remember the feeling I had after I arrived home to find my parents, who had no way of reaching me all day, waiting just inside my front door.
More recently I left my cell phone in my car on a night when I was in the eighth row for a Beyonce concert. I felt anxious because I was unreachable by some friends who were counting on me for a ride home — and more generally because I’m never without my phone. But once the concert started and the camera phones got pulled out of thousands of pants pockets, I saw the benefit of being phoneless. I was just about the only person in my section who had no device between my eyes and the stage. I was basically alone with Beyonce.
Towards the baseball season’s close, the Giants and their fans adopted a one-word mantra to reflect the experience of following the team: Torture. The Giant’s games were exciting and riveting, but they were so consistently close that they caused a heavy dose of stress for the players and fans alike.
I carry a similar set of opposing forces in my pocket every day. I couldn’t be more excited about the promise of these new technologies. I also couldn’t be more concerned about my inability to keep them from taking over events rather than enhancing them.