What would Alexander Graham Bell make of Selfies?

“Ahoy hoy” there!

These rather jaunty  words were used by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 to greet the person at the other end of the line on his brand new invention – the telephone. Ahoy hoy, or just Ahoy if you were very cool, was rather quickly superseded however by the greeting”hello” (heard of it?) at the suggestion of Thomas Edison.

It was Edison who opened the first batch of telephone exchanges in the United States in 1878 preferring his greeting to Bells. The NY Times recounts that Edison regaled in the fact that ‘Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away’. I guess that was that then… goodbye ahoy.

From these humble beginnings telecommunications has evolved, and continues to evolve, apace…


Some telecommunications milestones

  • 1876 – Telephone invented by Alexander Graham Bell.
  • 1878 – First telephone exchanges established by Thomas Edison.
  • 1927 – Cross-Atlantic phone service enabled between the USA and London.
  • 1956 – First telecommunications satellite – Telstar – was sent into space.
  • 1960s – ‘Touch-pad’ phones begin to appear eventually replacing rotary dial phones.(Remember those?)
  • 1990s – Mobile phones hit the market.
  • 2007 – First iPhone released. The Smartphone is born.

In this post I want to look at whether this evolving technology seems to be broadening our inclination to interact with one-another on in actual fact inhabiting it. Social and community engagement nowadays surely should be better-than-ever because of our multitude of ways to communicate with each other, right. But is it? I’m also interested in whether smartphones and the plethora of apps available on them are expanding our suite of experiences or potentially contracting them.^

^By the way these are just the observations of an ex-arts student, music-loving, camera-totting, travel blogging history buff. Any scientists looking for evidence-based, peer review data should probably stop around about | here |.

Poke-a-man.

The idea for this post came a few months ago as I lazed about my local park on a sublime spring day. I was watching and observing as I am want to do. Everything and nothing-in-particular all at the same time. It soon became clear however that there was an unusually large contingent of ’20-somethings’ wandering about the environs of the park with their heads down and eyes glued to the screens of their phones. More than normal I should say…

What was up? My interest was piqued.

As the days and weeks passed this scenario was played out more and more. To the point that I soon thought nothing of it. I had also in that time found out what was happening. Two words – Pokemon Go. There was a ghost or ghoul or whatever in the park and – by god – those visitors were gunna find it! I just thought the whole exercise looked more than a little bit sad to be honest.

Looking for Pokemon Go

Looks like fun…?

We had just come out of a harsh winter, the blossoms were out and the sun’s warming rays were a delight to feel upon pasty winter skin. The ghost hunters however looked so serious and moribund. I found it both amusing and deflating that they never spoke nor looked up. They came in groups too that never seemed to utter a word to each other. I saw fathers and sons who weren’t at the park kicking a ball at each other but were there with scowls and intensity.

In those moments I knew I could poke a man transfixed on their screen and simply be waved away like a fly. It didn’t seem like much fun to me.

The difference between recording a moment and being in it.

However I am equally as guilty of seeing the world through a prism of technology – it’s something however that I am trying to change. But it’s hard.

I am an avid photographer so I am oft to lug around a heavy DSLR camera and even a tripod sometimes. However mostly I don’t because I know I have a pretty decent camera/ video-camera right there in my front pocket. And you do too; or in your purse, or your bra or your backpack… wherever you keep it. It’s your smartphone and it’s soooo convenient. However its lens can endanger your physical experiences. There is a smartphone trap. A digital quicksand of merely recording your experiences rather than living them. Or in other words…

Recording moments rather than actually being in them.

I did it recently on a visit to the country. I visited a mighty wilderness called Wilsons Promontory. 50,000 hectares of pristine National Park in Victoria, Australia. It was spellbindingly beautiful. So much so that I found it hard to process. It was ethereal, almost magical. I wrote a post about it and made a video (below). It was a special place that I can’t wait to visit again.

But here’s the thing…

I spent 80% of my time squinting through the lens of a camera or bending my back trying to ensure the horizon on my video camera was flat. One of the reasons I pine to go back is that I don’t actually really feel like I was ‘there’. I have memories on a card rather than in my mind and that’s a shame.

Make a concert-ed effort to observe more, record less.

I see it all the time at concerts and again this is a trap I have fallen into way too often. An obsession with proving ‘I was there’ rather than actually just enjoying being there. Spending my time craning my neck and squinting up high at a screen rather than absorbing the ambience, vibes and energy on offer.

recording a concert on a phone

Looking up at a screen rather than being in the moment!

Gigs and festivals are amazing cultural events. A community of connected souls and spirits gathered at the alter of music. Have you ever caught the eye of the lead singer or guitarist and felt that momentary connection. So fleeting but so treasured. Try that with a video recording – it’ll more likely be a glare. Concerts have a pulse and a dynamism. Great ones ebb and flow and all are real-time. That’s where the magic lies. Live there more, at least that’s what I reckon.

girl watches at Saskwatch gig

Totally in the moment – connection, unspoken communication.

Besides when you check your phone afterwards the results are invariably disappointing. Poor sound quality and grainy video are often accompanied by the off-key bellowing of that incredibly drunk guy behind you during the chorus of the song you were so diligently trying to record. In contrast however it’s amazing how your own memory will seem to erase the irritating minutia and only capture and retain the most positive moments.

Give it a try at the next gig. I dares ya! Keep the phone in your pocket and live in the moment. The greatest shows will live long in your memory – I promise.

Getting the balance right between virtual and reality.

Like everything in life trying to achieve a suitable balance is a great goal. The concept is simple enough but the practicalities involved often incredibly complex. I am on a personal mission however to try and achieve some kind of workable balance between living/ experiencing versus capturing/ recording. I’ll share an example.

The Grampians.

On a recent trip into the Grampians mountains in Victoria I knew I had two days in the area. So on that first day – with much trepidation and more than a decent dose of tech-withdrawal – I explored the region sans camera or phone. And explore was the operative word! I really felt like I was discovering and it was true exploration. It was so cathartic and liberating. I met and wandered with fellow travellers and stood mesmerised at the base of the mighty MacKenzie Falls enjoying her cooling mists. It was a fantastic day. Number of photos shot – zero; minutes of video captured – nil.

The next day I returned. I had all my gear with me and the intent was very different. To record & capture. It was a great day too if pretty intense and began well before dawn. Ironically the spray at the waterfall this time was somewhat of a pain as it kept getting on my lens. Even more reason to have enjoyed it the previous day.

MacKenzie Falls Grampians - Thirty Summers

MacKenzie Falls

The Selfie. Aaah the selfie.

Bet you didn’t see this one coming Mssrs Bell and Edison. Perhaps no change is so inextricably linked to the smartphone as the advent of the #Selfie. In the decade since the release of the first iPhone photographic behaviour has changed 180 degrees – I mean literally!

P.S (pre-smartphones) cameras, including the rudimentary ones included on the old Nokia 6210s et al, were pointed mostly forwards. You know, at things. At scenery, at other people. But two innovators changed all that in the mid to late 2000s. Their names were Steve and Mark and their two companies changed everything. Apple and Facebook combined to turn the world’s cameras around and onto their owners.

Post iPhone and the rise of social media a pretty photo of the Eiffel Tower was still ok but a photo of You, by You, uploaded to Facebook by You whilst You were still right there at the tower became the new benchmark. Validation would flood your way in the form of likes and it was instant.

couple take selfie at eiffel tower

I’m at the Eiffel Tower – See! (Oh and you’re not)

Turning a phone into a camera is a massive evolution. I wonder if the inventors could have ever fathomed it. It is perhaps the most fundamental change in the telephone’s 140 or so years of history. So far…

But is this behavioural change necessarily a good one? I spot at least one problem…

Look behind you!

I’m a travel nut in his early 40s who has travelled the world extensively for close to 25 years now and I’ve noticed something. Back in the day folks used to face things. You know attractions like the Taj Mahal, the Leaning Tower of Pisa or Big Ben say, you know… interesting things. However these days more seem to be facing the other way. That’s to say in the complete opposite direction. It’s a pretty significant shift really. And we all know why right… Click, click – #selfie.

And that’s fine in an ‘each-to-their-own’ kind of way but a new invention is changing things… yet again. Too impatient to wait  a couple of millions years or so for genetic evolution to enable us to grow our own selfie-arms some boffin has invented the Selfie Stick. Unlike a selfie per se these things however can be quite intrusive on the experience of others.

girl takes selfie at arc de triomphe

Her last selfie. Crossing the Arc de Triomphe backwards was a poor idea… (just kidding)

Selfie Sticks.

There is an ever-increasing list of attractions that are banning these. Popular sites such as Versailles, Disneyland, the Van Gogh Museum and the Sistine Chapel and even the iconic Lollapalooza music festival are among the rapidly growing list.

I’ve never really been ‘anti’ these but I just can’t get into shots taken using them. They also look quite odd to use in my opinion. I saw a guy the other day filming himself walking but at first glance it looked like he was walking an invisible sausage dog. I’m guessing it’s a generational thang too.

In fact this photo will probably confirm all that. In it a gal beams at her phone…

  • She sees – an awesome photo where she looks pretty, happy and at one with nature
  • I see – her pointing at what she should probably be looking at and holding a broom out a car window.
girl takes a selfie infront of a mountain

See what I’m missing?

The wrap.

It all came together for me at that waterfall.

That day when the roar of the tumbling water, the cooling mists and the majesty of it all held me in awe. It was the purest of pleasures, innate happiness. The next day with my tech gear I almost cursed those same shimmering mists for smudging my lens.

I realised then that I will continue my personal journey for reality over virtual reality as much as possible. And for an early-adopter geeky tech-boy it hasn’t been easy but the rewards already great. I think I have discovered my own personal balance.

These days we have literally hundreds more channels of communication on offer to us than Alexander or Thomas could have ever dreamed of. So is this technology making us more or less social? Are we communicating with others more? My gut feel is actually less. Ironic really.

But what do you think?

About Saxon

I'm passionate about travelling, music, photography, blogging, 'Social Anthropology' (the posh term for people-watching) and creating content. I travel to learn and observe to understand. My dream day would look something like this.... A bottle of red (or two), fresh baguette (or two) & wedge of Camembert (or two), a balmy Paris September eve spent people-watching in fine company on the banks of the Canal St Martin.

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