Lately I’ve been thinking about how much cell phone cameras have changed our lives — and the world — for good, and for bad, too.
The good is pretty obvious. Cell phone cameras are easy to carry around with you, so you’ve always got a camera at hand if you want to capture a moment in space and time — like this picture of boats at Burnt Cove, silhouetted against the dying glow of the sun just after it had plunged below the horizon, as we were returning from a boat trip to North Haven with Dr. Science and the GV Jogger in early August.
I like having a camera at hand because you never know when those special moments might occur. (I like it so much, in fact, that UJ calls me “Snappy” whenever I haul out the phone to take a picture.) Taking these kinds of photos helps me to really lock those special moments into my memory bank. And, of course, there have been instances where people have used their cell phones to capture real news — natural disasters, police misconduct, public officials behaving badly — that wouldn’t have been preserved or come to light otherwise.
But there’s obviously a dark side, too. Selfie obsession — to the point where people are injuring and even killing themselves walking backward to get the perfect framing of their face — is an obvious issue. But there is more to it than that. If you go to your news feed page, how many “news” stories are really nothing other than one person’s bad day captured by a cell phone camera?
So much of what is presented as “news” these days consists of random private people misbehaving in their own worlds, in ways that would not be “news” at all if there weren’t a camera at hand to capture it. The exhausted mother lashing out at a misbehaving toddler, the delivery driver who wouldn’t stop to help a senior citizen who had fallen, the pilot who asked a woman wearing a revealing outfit to cover up — all of these are examples of stories that wouldn’t be stories at all without the salacious picture or video footage. People look at these kinds of stories because it’s always interesting to take a peek at other people’s lives, but they really aren’t “news” in any meaningful sense. And I wonder if, in this way, the cell phone camera has helped to knock real news off the public radar screen and contribute to the trivialization of public discourse.
Cell phone cameras truly are a double-edged sword.