Monday, September 16, 2013

Unintended future parenting lessons from phone commercials

I'd like to salute the advertising firm behind this commercial for the Nokia Lumia phone, but not because they've interested me in the product.

Before I explain why, we need to back up a bit.

Last Monday night as we went to bed my wife and I detected the unmistakable smell of smoke coming from outside the open window. After the fire in the building next door last June we instantly on high alert. I went to the patio and saw smoke billowing into the air from the northwest, looking to be originating from across the street at the next corner. I went to do some reconnaissance, going down the back alley toward the street. Sure enough, it was the laundromat with flames shooting out of the roof. Many of the others in the neighborhood were already watching, and the fire department was arriving on scene.

And when I was down in the back alley, braving the thickening smoke, among the gathered crowd I overheard someone lament aloud that she hadn't brought her phone--not because she needed to call someone but because she couldn't take a picture.

That's where we are: Everyone not only has the opportunity to document the world with the device in their pocket but many have the feeling of almost obligation to document; whether it's to be shared to social media or merely to be shown to others when telling the story the next day at work, it's something of a letdown if one doesn't have that device at the ready.

That's no criticism—I'm certainly not in a position to suggest it's bad, as I stood out there for several seconds longer than I intended and took the unimpressive photo on the right (and worse: I only thought to do so after hearing that person say what she said), and then after getting back to the bedroom I used said device to post that photo to Facebook (with the hideously glib caption lamenting the folly of trying to go to sleep early). Of course many of the other standing around who had their devices held them out to capture the flames, standing there despite the smoke that stung my eyes to the point where I had to retreat back inside.

I'm not suggesting people didn't stand around watching fires in the days before we all had cameras on our phones. We've always been drawn to spectacle, both out of concern for whether there's danger to us and because it's inherently interesting. But the response to it has adopted the notion of sharing it (or at least being ready to share if the opportunity manifests) has become a default position.

I don't remember how that happened. I suppose it's not the sort of thing that occurs overnight, but slowly, imperceptibly, as a technology grows more and more prevalent, more commonplace. Little by little we realize, Hey, I have a camera in my pocket; I don't need to be limited to telling others about this but I can show them. As we participate on social media we grasp that we are competing with everyone else for attention from everybody else (in whatever sphere that may be) and if we spy something that may be more noteworthy than the usual drivel we perhaps unconsciously identify an opportunity.

It's not that humans haven't always had an inclination toward drawing desirable attention; it's merely interesting how we have adapted to our current technological circumstances.

My child likely will never know a time when the world isn't thus. I suppose I knew that, but still it seems like a quasi-revelation to have it rise to consciousness this way.


But back to what I got from the commercial above for the Nokia Lumia phone, touting its 41-megapixel camera—which really makes it a camera masquerading as a phone, but let's not digress to that—by showing a school play where all the parents in the audience fighting as they try to record the video of the performance with their iPhones and Android devices, while the Lumia-owning couple sits patiently in the back of the room, confident they can record it from all the way back there and be able to zoom in and still have marvelous clarity.

Overlooking the reality that if one zooms in significantly with a lens then the slightest shake of the hands holding the camera are magnified as well (if they're zooming while recording) or the effort to edit video afterward (if they're recording without zoom and are taking in the whole room with the stage merely being that distant area on the overall screen)—and let's not even try to consider how massive the file size would be if recording with 41-megapixels worth of data every second (how massive would the camera memory card have to be to record a two-hour play?), the ad does poke fun at this notion of recording with one's device. Obviously the ad intends to make one want to be able to record better, but I look at it and see a trenchant cautionary tale.

Back when I was more inclined to shoot photography (you know, with an actual camera), my wife would get on my case about putting it down and just enjoying the moment while one is in the moment, and the commercial only serves to make me want to strive to never turn into that parent who records everything. Obviously it's easy for me to say that now, before my child is even born, but I fancy that I'll keep perspective about how much needs to be documented for posterity (and not just generate a bunch of video neither we nor anyone else will watch more than once). I also like to believe I'll not lose sight of what I already know: when you hold up your device to record and must watch through the display on the little screen you are actively distracting anyone near or behind you—including those who are merely trying to enjoy the moment while it's happening (who has more right to see what's happening than all your friends on Facebook later).

In the "old days" one had to lug a video camera and find a spot to set up a tripod off to the side to not be in the way. And they just started the recording, let the camera go, and could still participate in the activity on stage (perhaps just checking every so often that the camera was still recording but not paying sole attention to that). Or at least in theory that's how it used to be; I was never that person, nor were my parents, so I am not speaking with authority. All I know is that plays (and concerts and such events) that I attended in the past were not filled with people holding some device near their faces in an attempt to capture it. While the commercial is perhaps an exaggeration, I fear it will be less and less of one as smart phones expand in their capabilities.

The problem with the accelerated pace of technological advances is that people lack the ability to put what is possible into a context of what should be acceptable in public. This isn't a screed about propriety or aspiring to a standard from a bygone era; these devices are here and overall they are marvelous—and there are many people who have grasped how to use them without turning into colossal a-holes.

Still, as somewhat lampooned in the ad, there is no shortage of those in the colossal a-hole category who probably deserve to have those devices swatted out of their oblivious hands and smashed to bits. Now that I'd consider worthy of pulling out my phone to record; such a video I cannot imagine I'd ever get tired of watching.


Who knows—perhaps in their future the ability to weave a tale without showing a picture or video recording may be the sort of skill that being able to juggle is today; not absolutely necessary but something to whip out at cocktail parties and hold the attention of a bunch of non-virtual people.

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