If a beautiful moment occurs, but I didn’t take out my phone to record it, did it still happen?
A young boy and girl are staring in awe at the fireworks lighting up the night sky in celebration of the 4th of July. They are the children of a friend of mine, and we were all on my rooftop, which offers a stunning view of the city skyline without the crowds. I wanted to whip out my phone to capture the moment, but I didn’t do it. By the way, this isn’t some noble story. You won’t find some words of wisdom here, or some claims that one way of doing things is better than another. To be clear, I really wanted to record this moment.
Two kids on a rooftop
The kids are young, and the year before was their first time seeing fireworks in person, on this same rooftop. They looked like they were fresh out of a scene from a children’s book, in colorful pajamas, on their tippy-toes, and peering earnestly over the rail. During this moment, I was right behind them, and so I snapped a photo that still mesmerizes me to this day. It’s not a crisp photo with perfect lighting or anything like that. But it was still perfect.
This year, however, I was a little behind schedule with food prep. So I was rushing to get everything set up as friends arrived. I didn’t even get a chance to change into my red, white, and blue outfit. So when the fireworks happened, I wasn’t ready. The kids looked out at the show, and I thought to myself I should get a photo, just like last year. What a lovely way to mark maybe the beginning of a tradition. But immediately I realized I wasn’t positioned at an angle to get a good photo. And at this moment I also thought that maybe I could move around, but to do so would have been disruptive to the small crowd of neighbors and friends all enjoying the show.
And there were fireworks
I felt my phone in my pocket and instead refocused my energy on the show. In the few seconds I took to take in the surrounding scene, I saw everyone was wide-eyed with smiles, adults and children alike. Some were recording, and others were not. And I thought, do I want to interrupt this moment by trying to record it? I decided not to worry about my phone or angles, and to just enjoy the show. And I called out different colors and patterns for the kids to take notice of. They responded in unison with “Woooow!”
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I wonder if this age-old question could be updated to our tech-savvy modern times. Like, if something beautiful happens and no one is around to record it, did it really happen? Did it ripple out into the universe or not?
And I have no shade to how we record our lives. As I’m writing this, my Fitbit is recording my heartbeat and reminding me to get my steps in. My phone is recording my location because it gave me directions to this little café where I’m writing. And last night I watched a comedian perform, and I learned about her through suggested content on Netflix. But where do we draw the line between wanting to preserve a moment and wanting to simply be in the moment?
Technology holds no straight lines
I think there is no cut-and-dry approach here, unless our goal is to be completely off the grid and cut off from all that is happening around us. Technology and social media have changed our lives forever. It’s rapid advances have spotlighted some beautiful and also troubling things. Social media in particular has become a platform for many underrepresented voices. But it also divides us. Maybe the simpler question to ask, is when we whip out my phone to record, who am I recording for? What do we gain when we are experiencing life always through a screen? Also, what do we lose?