About a decade ago, during the advent of the smartphone — yes it was only a little over 12 years ago, seemingly eons ago yet equally, somehow very recent — complaints were made by stage performers, bands, artists, museums, actors, etc that they did not want their performances recorded by the now all-pervasive and miraculously broadcast quality devices. I believe it was the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs who instituted the first no-smartphone policy on the door, the consequence of recording being ejection from the concert. The abiding memory of this era-specific demand to not capture one-off moments, which now seems laughably quaint, is an image in the magazine Private Eye taken from the back of a crowd at a gig showing 80% of the audience holding up their phones to either photograph or video the performance in front of them, with a speech bubble emerging from one of the silhouettes reading “I’ll experience it later”. The prescience of that one-liner has stayed with me ever since.
Moving into the Noveau-Twenties, while some of the older generation still grumpily adhere to this resistance to modern norms of digital capture — along with the occasional contrarian — smart devices which can record with stunning clarity in both audio and video are ubiquitous now. Your average person typically has one (if not two) on their person at any given time when they are out of the house. This has resulted in, along with concert footage, the fact that almost any incident can reliably be assumed to have been filmed by someone. This, understandably, makes a lot of people uneasy. There are certainly arguments to be made as to the necessity of surveillance infrastructure when 43% of the planet carries a GPS tracker, microphone and video camera in their pocket at all times, but these arguments are regularly being made in mainstream newspapers and by whistleblowers only to fall on uncaring ears. It seems people had assumed we were all being watched and scrutinised anyway and despite the best scaremongering tactics of Black Mirror et al we all seem content sucking our teeth at the problem, then publicly broadcasting our thoughts on it to the world. I doubt Orwell thought the response to ‘Big Brother is watching you’ would be “so what?” But while the terrifying implications of having no privacy is certainly damaging — and, for many, life-threatening — the aspect of Big Tech’s invasion of our lives implied by that Private Eye gag seems perilously under scrutinised.
Instead of simply watching us, the ubiquity of the smart device is influencing our desires. Another thing we all also seem to know about but few seem to care about. Merriam-Webster made ‘Influencer’ the word of 2019 after all… But far from simply telling us what we should desire, the digital glass brick has come to define how we experience our desires. The ‘I’ll experience it later’ effect is now part of the industry and part of the performance. The New Yorker published an article in 2018 about how museums, in an attempt to boost flagging attendance, were commissioning ‘Instagram Friendly’ installations that are designed to be spaces you want to take a selfie in and then providing the patron with a hashtag and the institution’s IG account to tag when you post the image. This is alongside ‘pop-up’ (an idiotic piece of marketing speak that attempts to replace ‘temporary’) museums that are also designed in the same way to generate traffic to their websites and social media. The problem is that despite the ingenuity of the installations they are not being appreciated by the attendees for the art they represent but as a context to insert themselves inside and then be seen experiencing. It is not being experienced as art in this regard, it is being experienced as wallpaper. This is not art for art’s sake, this is art for marketing’s sake.
A study by the Harris Group published in 2016 found 72% of under-30s preferred to spend money on experiences rather than material things. On the face of it this seems like a delightful change of mentality. The complaints about ‘materialism’ — especially at Christmas and whenever you go on holiday and parents don’t want/can’t spend money on a new bucket and spade — have long rung in the ears of anyone over 30, so seeing the younger generation push back against that should be encouraging, but the question is: how are they experiencing these experiences? In another article published in Travel & Leisure, they spoke to an Instagram travel blogger who made it clear that the beautiful, FOMO-inspiring images they post, while clearly staged, also don’t come with the glorious holiday they imply. The image is the destination not the place. More time is spent in transit and waiting for flights than in the luxury hotels. Meals are skipped and movement is constant. An ‘experience’ is captured as opposed to their experience, and is then bottled like the metaphorical firefly to be observed at later date. The reality being that the fireflies will be dead when you return to the jar. And herein lies the problem with the ‘I’ll experience it later’ effect: there, ultimately, is no experience to be had. The experience is entirely digital. Whether you are in bed looking at your photo of the beautiful forests of Cambodia or whether you are actually there, the social media revolution has recontextualised our appreciation of a place so much that even when we are in the physical space we are not ‘present’. We are looking for the best angle to take the photograph and wondering how many likes it will get. Stewart Lee made this point by stating that the ‘Wanderer in a sea of fog’ would now be facing the other way with the selfie camera engaged.
While this all may sound like the griping of an old man (especially when referencing Stewart Lee), it’s worth noting, this is nothing new. Smiling in photographs was invented by Kodak. Prior to the ‘Kodak Moment’ no one saw the point of smiling in a photograph, they were taken to capture the moment, it depended on the moment if people were smiling or not, not the presence of a camera. Kodak changed all that by forcing a rictus grin upon all who photograph regardless of your actual emotional state at the time it was taken, an idea scarily brought to life by the dead-eyed smile of Liam Payne taking selfies with fans. The falsity and performance of photography and filming has been part of culture since its creation, the difference today is that it has altered how we want to experience the world. It has also narrowed the focus of what we want to experience. The rise in the Experience Economy, pushed by the ‘100 Places to visit before you die’ or ‘The 21 holiday destinations of the year’ has created a spike in tourism to a limited number of global tourist sites with devastating effects. Pollution and damage to the local infrastructure caused by the mass influx of people tramping to the one favoured photo-op in the Grand Canyon is overwhelming the area. To say nothing of the pressure on the limited staff at these places, the health and safety concerns that grow the more people are compressed into one particular area and the damage to the wildlife caused the takeaway ‘picnic’ rubbish left behind. Uluru was finally gated off in 2017 to stop tourists climbing on it, though the damage has already been done after decades of people clambering all over it. All in service of merely capturing proof of attendance.
I got married in 2019 and our initial desire was to not have a photographer. Firstly we couldn’t afford one and secondly, everyone has a camera anyway so we’d just ask friends to provide the shots where possible. In the end we were able to get a friend to do the photographs (which are incredible btw) but what interested me most was that, despite putting ‘Photography welcome/encouraged’ on the invitations, the photos that were published online by friends and family in attendance tended to be posted in people’s ‘Stories’ on Instagram. This, again, places the event in the context of the person taking the photo, it is their story. This is not the fault of my friends/family but the fault of social media’s intent to distort the reality of the experience. The events/places you capture are about you and not the event or the place. The experience, in this instance, is provably not captured for archival reasons as IG stories are temporary, they self-destruct after 24 hours. Capturing something in this context is solely done for presentation, “here I am inside this event/place” or “I was there”. You might then ask ‘well what’s wrong with that?’ And, seeing as this is absolutely the norm across the globe and an aspect of culture that has miraculously crossed class boundaries (plenty of the ultra-wealthy and celebrities engage in contributing to the Experience Economy), even if this is a problem it’s not one anyone cares that much about, similar to the surveillance issue. But what should concern us is how it is detaching us from our humanity.
Humanity has always been contextualised by its surroundings. We are astonishingly capable of adapting and, depending on where we are, we are are able to take on the elements of a place to better survive. By putting a digital layer between us and the world we should be experiencing, we are less capable of that unique flexibility. The online world offers a mode of curation to our experiences as a human being, a method of control. The wonder and the glory of the natural world, art and the many experiences that come with being a human alive in the world (in any era) is that they are beyond our control. It is how we react to these experiences that defines who we are. It is what makes us human. By deferring these experiences via the digital realm so we might ‘experience at our leisure’ (despite the experience you supposedly captured being designated as leisure), we have outsourced our humanity to tech companies who then use that data only to sell it back to us. It is a libidinal economy but one in which our desires are manufactured.
This is not to advocate the patronising, finger-wagging of so many other articles that tell you to “put your phone down and go outside” (the 21st Century equivalent to “get off my lawn”). I use my phone to capture all sorts of experiences. I have recently been archiving 15 years worth of photographs so I don’t lose them, like I almost did when my computer died recently, and going the 12,000+ images has been a delight of reliving the moments of my life and wondering what new experiences the future will hold. This is the undeniable benefit of the ubiquity of capturing experiences, that they CAN be re-experienced later but only if you experienced them to begin with. The argument should be that this need to capture and present should not be at the expense of the experience itself. The capture should be the afterthought, not the purpose of the visit. As an example, on my stag do in Liverpool last year we made a last minute detour during a day out to Crosby Beach in Merseyside, the site of the permanent exhibit ‘Another Place’ by the artist Anthony Gormley. Upon cresting the dunes and arriving on the sands I was greeted by a bright sun hanging low, flanked by high clouds, casting stark shadows across the nearby docks and bathing the wash in a haunting light, solitary iron figures puncturing the pristine landscape ahead. I instinctively reached for my phone only to find it missing. It had fallen out of my pocket in the car. As the others charged ahead I briefly considered making the long walk back to collect it but decided against and went with my friends to walk amongst the metal figures. I will never forget the eerie and beautiful hour or so we spent there and an image of one of the statues standing alone in the spring evening light against the industrial backdrop is burned into my mind better than any photograph I could have taken. Luckily some of my friends kept better hold of their items and were able to take a few pictures, so there is still a memento or two of that visit and there are plenty of pictures of the weekend as a whole. Since then I have resolved to ‘forget’ my phone during an experience until I am ready to leave. Capturing a reminder of your experiences is a wonderful and good thing, replacing the experience with the mode of capture is not.
If we must live in the Panopticon society — and it seems we must — let us try and enjoy the views outside rather than admiring the cage itself.