The Mediated Life Is Not Worth Living

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I spent last week in ephemeral Black Rock City, where on Saturday night I and 60,000 others stood within a ring of hundreds of vehicles transformed into spectacular art, and watched a gargantuan wooden effigy erupt, burn, and collapse, beneath one of the most ridiculously dazzling fireworks displays in ever. It was quite a moment. And I looked at the crowd around me and I thought to myself: what is wrong with these people?

The problem was that half the people around me couldn’t really appreciate the moment because they were too busy trying to capture it, in some crude or clumsy way. A forest of thousands of phones and point-and-shoot cameras protruded from the crowd, held by people with unrealistically optimistic expectations of their sensors’ low-light capabilities. Meanwhile, a camera on a boom swung back and forth from the burn to the crowd, who cheered as if on command when it faced them; and high above, a brightly glowing drone armed with a GoPro buzzed amid the smoke.

These days nearly everything we do is mediated by and filtered through technology–and this is not necessarily a good thing. Our social interactions are increasingly conducted and assisted via our phones, which all too often distract us from actual conversation and connection. We snap-judge businesses on their Yelp reviews, even though we know we have no reason to trust the reviewers. We stop experiencing things in order to record our experience, and in doing so, miss the very thing that we’re trying to capture. We measure our fitness with our Fitbits and Jawbones, so we avoid those activities — yoga, weight training, martial arts — which those data collectors can’t easily track.

John Lennon once said, “the message of rock n’ roll is: Be. Here. Now.” All too often, though, today’s technology doesn’t help us do that at all. On the contrary, it gets in the way; it distances, it distracts, it deflects. It so often seems so pathetic and ridiculous and self-defeating.

But that doesn’t mean we should roll back the clock. Fine, yes, let’s not pretend that disruptive/innovative new technology is always, automatically, an improvement on the status quo. Sometimes it makes things worse before it makes things better. But on the other hand, those backward steps are often prerequisites to the running jump required to vault over an uncanny valley.

We have a long way to go before personal technology is seamlessly integrated into our immediate experiences, rather than getting in their way and filtering the life and spark from them. But I think we’re slowly getting there. Eventually, as we weave technology into every aspect of the human condition, personal tech will do what we want and need it to, in context, with the slightest and most subtle of triggers, and very little physical or cognitive distraction.

Whichever companies make that happen will be capitalizing on a huge market opportunity. That’s why this is the year of smart watches and Google Glass. I would have felt better about that Burning Man crowd if they’d been watching/recording the experience through Glass rather than their cameras. Don’t get me wrong: Glass still comes with serious social disruption costs, and privacy concerns. But it’s a stumbling, awkward, step in the right direction, and in the long run, I think we’ll look back on it (and Google Now) as part of the lead-up to that running jump I’m talking about.

Until then, though, let’s not pretend that we need to record, filter, and mediate everything that happens to us with today’s awkward, crude, and unsuitable technology. Do yourself a favor: if you’re seeing or doing something genuinely awesome and/or interesting, then put your phone away–at least every now and again–until the day a better solution finally arrives.

Image credit: yours truly, on Flickr.