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Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Bigger Picture

Yesterday I read a news story that made me sad. It certainly wasn't the first time a story in the news was horrible and I'm sure it won't be the last, but it really got me to thinking about the whole idea of presence. As in, are we ever present in the moment, or have our electronic gadgets taken over our lives?

The news story was of a man who pulled out a gun and shot a student in the back as he was exiting a Muni train in San Francisco. Sadly, it's not the fact that someone was killed that got my attention: the man that pulled the gun had been brandishing it in plain view for several minutes before picking his victim and shooting. This was all caught on security cameras; even though the train was crowded, no one saw the gun until the sound of the gunshot broke their attention away from the cell phones they were using. (Here's a link to that depressing story.)

This was close on the heels of a discussion I had with a fellow photography enthusiast. We were sharing the frustration of getting a good shot of nature--if the light isn't in the right place do you stay until the sun moves into a better position? Do you take the picture and try to alter it with software? How can you get the camera to see what you are seeing? Are we spending so much time trying to get a good photo that it's keeping us from enjoying the trip?

Our devices can be incredibly attractive, and really, what's the problem with playing around while you're on the bus or trying to get the best possible photo? Nothing's wrong with that--I completely understand wanting to avoid strangers in close quarters and certainly want to have good photos of my trips--so why my vague unease with the whole situation?

The first time I remember being struck by this was during the last Olympics. As each country's athletes marched out onto the track, almost to the person they were holding cell phones up, recording the huge crowd cheering for them. It felt disrespectful, like they only cared about showing their friends what they were "seeing." It seemed vaguely rude somehow, as if the crowds (who, incidentally, paid a steep price to be there cheering) were not important to them.

I think part of my discomfort with this new age of distraction is the way it disconnects people from the world. You'd think the "World Wide Web" would be bringing people together like never before, but the opposite seems to be happening. You can have 1,200 friends on Facebook, 3,200 people reading your tweets, and 6,000 reshares of your latest GIF, but have you actually talked to a real live person today? Or worse, did someone try to shoot you? No? How do you know?

I've found myself on a few trips getting so wrapped up in getting great photos that I'm not really enjoying the trip itself. It's as if the camera gets between me and the scenery. I'm viewing the scene through a tiny hole with a shutter and it's very confining. The world isn't constructed in 4x6 inch frames; even the mighty iPhone Panorama feature can't reconstruct nature.

Lately we've been on outings exclusively for photography--to work on technique and so forth--and that has actually helped free up my outdoor enjoyment time. Knowing how the camera works is very helpful; sometimes you can just look at a scene and know immediately there's not a good picture in it. But that doesn't mean it's not worth looking at. The human eye is an amazing thing, and nothing--not Google Glass, not even the most expensive digital camera in the world--will be able to match it. Because your eyes are connected directly to your brain, and your brain (if you're lucky) is connected directly to your heart.

So from my heart to yours: put down the devices for a while each day. You'll be amazed by what you might see.
Device-free crowd: These guys know how to live.