By now you’ve probably seen that Apple holiday-season ad that only George Orwell (and perhaps the recently canonized St. Steven Jobs) could love. You know, the one with the “misunderstood” teenager who appears to have emotionally checked out for the entirety of his family’s holiday get-together so he can play with his iPhone; yet, lo and behold! He was actually there all along, producing a heartwarming video of the weekend’s highlights for all to enjoy.
Understandably, the advert bears the pithy title, Misunderstood.
But wait a second – he really did check out! He opted to fidget with his phone rather than frolic with his family. He didn’t build any snowmen with his cousins or participate in the snowball fight. He didn’t even have his hands free to give grandpa a proper hug. No, he did not experience a moment of family time. All he experienced was making a film about the family. They didn’t connect with him, nor he with them.
So what, exactly, about Mr. Misunderstood did we misunderstand?
Mr. Misunderstood missed his own family reunion so that he could record it – that’s tragic.
About 25 years ago I read an outlandish essay by Arthur C. Clarke. He argued that we will never discover extraterrestrial life, because by the time we develop the requisite technology, we will have also developed prodigious technologies to create virtual realities that will interest us far more than what’s really out there. Come on! The idea of healthy people embracing the virtually-real at the expense of the really-real was, to me, both absurd and repugnant. And yet his uncanny prediction is coming true.
Our human interactions have become so suffused with the simultaneous memorializing of those interactions that we have begun to equate recording life with actually living it. Like the proverbial frog not noticing it’s getting cooked in a slowly-heating pot, this insidious transformation is happening all around us. Mr. Misunderstood missed his own family reunion so that he could record it – that’s tragic. Apparently Apple (and many YouTube responders) thinks it should warm our hearts.
The problem actually runs deeper, because once the camera (or social media feed) is rolling, we can’t help but adopt a persona to portray. Over time, we begin to confuse who we really are with that persona. It’s almost as if we have begun casting ourselves in the starring role of our own reality TV shows. But what audience are we playing for? And how much do we really believe our “followers” care?
Here’s a quick self-test to determine just how big a swig of the Kool-Aid you’ve taken. Hypothetical: You’re waiting in line when who should saunter up behind you but the person you’d most like to meet in the whole wide world. If your knee-jerk resembles “OMG! I’ve gotta film this and post it on Facebook” it might be time for a social media Sabbath. This is the person you wanted to meet, remember? Recording that you “met” doesn’t actually constitute meeting.
Now suppose you request a quick pic, but your hero politely declines to be the décor of your self-aggrandizing selfie, offering instead to engage in a regular chat. Would you be disappointed? If so, it’s probably time to go cold turkey.
Look, I love my iPhone as much as the next guy. I’ve even developed my own mobile app. They are amazing tools for productivity, communication, and yes, for recording moments we want to share and don’t want to forget. But that’s all they are: tools to help us get on with living, not a replacement for living.
Let’s not forget to put down the phones so we can build a few snowmen, throw a few snowballs, and yes, give grandpa a proper hug. Beautiful, delicious, real life is happening all around us, pretty much everywhere we look – except on the screens of our mobile devices. If you don’t appreciate that, you’ve misunderstood.