Comment: Selfies, a snapshot of modern angst

Two British holidaymakers take a 'selfie'. Picture: Getty
Two British holidaymakers take a 'selfie'. Picture: Getty
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INSTALLED on my computer is a programme called Freedom that disables the wireless connection, preventing me from going online for a specified period of time.

I activate it so I can concentrate on the task at hand; whatever this is, it usually requires my attention, unless the task at hand is to flick restlessly between e-mail, Twitter and the internet, surfing for stuff I kid myself is pertinent. But even when I instruct Freedom to run, I find myself forgetting that it’s on, absentmindedly clicking on the internet icon at the bottom of the screen for no good reason.

We are living in a culture that is prone to distraction and every week an institution or organisation capitulates to it. The National Gallery in London has just ended its ban on photography. Visiting shortly afterwards, I had to wade through hundreds of people snapping away in front of paintings that included Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The space was busy before the photography ban was lifted, but now it’s impossible to see a number of paintings for all the smartphones and tablets hovering in front of them. In addition, as there is currently a craze for selfies with famous pictures, someone’s grin is also all too often posed in front of the work, before the visitor rushes on to the next celebrity painting and another snapper takes their place.

To what end? No doubt some photographs are taken for appropriate purposes: to study the composition, or the frame or the placement in the gallery and a postcard or close up on the website won’t do the trick, but I doubt they are the most common reason.

We all too often value things only if we experience them through our screens and even then only when we are inserted into them, rather than appreciating the thing for itself. At a recent gig, most of the people in the front row were holding up their phones to video the singer and her moves. I bet not one of them took the footage home to watch closely. It’s more a way of showing “I was there”, with one’s presence bestowing some significance on the event.

The frenetic clicking of the camera and the jostling for the prime position for the shot gets in the way of looking at the art or the artists – which is surely what the painting or the singer is there for.

The fixation on doing everything through a lens or a screen obscures the view for the person taking the photo, as well for the rest of us who would like a few minutes in front of a masterpiece.

And before you dismiss this as a snobbish reaction from someone who wants to prevent the masses from having cultural experiences, spare a thought for the PSV Eindhoven football supporters protesting about the introduction of wi-fi at their stadium. One banner held up at the last match read: “F*** wi-fi, support the team”. The culture of distraction insults the audience as well as the art or sport.

I salute the football fans who are taking a stand against the encouragement of distraction and I am pleased that they aren’t the only folk to do so. Kate Bush has just asked her fans to put down their iPads and smartphones on her comeback tour. On her website, she requested: “I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.” Bush wants to connect with her audience rather their technology. It is meant to be a live performance, after all.

There are virtues in engaging properly with a painting, music or a football match; virtues in looking and thinking about something in a sustained fashion. Namely, it means appreciating the thing and not yourself. It means looking at it and listening to it and not to something else. To enjoy something, to grasp a refrain or an idea and to understand it fully requires forgetting ourselves and things that concern us for a while and thinking about the idea or listening to the refrain. Understanding something complicated, or developing a line of thought, requires the ability to concentrate for a long period of time. These concerns echo a tradition of philosophical and social thought that reaches back to the 19th century. Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard lamented the external pressures of modern existence on the mind. So is this the same old grumbling? I don’t think so.

It is tempting to argue that new technologies, especially the internet, have facilitated distraction in an exponential fashion and that this is novel, but that gets things the wrong way round. The technology could facilitate the retrieving of information and study; it doesn’t force us to be unsettled. The internet and cameras in galleries or at concerts aren’t really the problem, even if they are easy to blame. The problem is the use we are putting this technology to – and that we simply do not make ourselves sit and think quietly for long enough.

It’s true that we now have to navigate an array of external distractions dedicated to capturing our interest but not to holding it. Those who run political parties, the media and cultural institutions manifestly think of most people as having the attention span of a goldfish. Politicians talk in soundbites and dangle policies in front of us to see which ones catch our eye, dropping them quickly if and when they fall out of favour, rather than developing a line of argument and mounting a long-term vision.

News programmes rely on exciting graphics rather than serious analysis to keep people watching. Documentary-makers are instructed to make programmes aimed at intelligent 14-year-olds. But most bright 14-year-olds don’t watch documentaries and the upshot is that the rest of the population who do are talked down to, so they switch off.

But we cannot just blame others. The freedom to concentrate is at our fingertips. The solution is simple. We just have to pay attention.