Prof. Wu has also become more deliberate about when he brings out his camera and rarely uses the camera feature on his iPhone. “We can’t all be watching,” he says. “If everybody is the photographer, who is the doer?” (Although he admits his wife recently chided him for not taking enough photos on their vacation.)
Prof. Cooper even cynically suggests that people brandish smart phones habitually now because no one smokes any more and they aren’t sure want to do with their hands.
Is it true that we have lost the ability to savour a moment for its own sake? The idea that taking a picture in itself distances you from the scene is a debatable one: Sometimes, as Prof. Murray points out, it requires a concentration on details you might have overlooked otherwise.
But the research of Dr. Hand, the Queens sociologist, suggests that at least among 20-somethings there is a growing awareness that even as the public replication of digital images makes them powerful, it weakens the value of the photograph itself. In his interviews he found that university students were diligent about managing their visual presences online, especially images of compromising scenarios.
They argued that younger teens, who are new to the technology, and their parents’ generation, who are confused by it, were more careless. But they know better, they said: “I don’t want to be seen all the time.”
Many were also sensitive to the pressure to whitewash their digital selves in hindsight, especially in case of employers’ searches. On the other hand, to preserve private memories some of his interview subjects had begun keeping handwritten diaries so that they could not be edited with a mouse click: “Even if I cross a line out,” one student to told him, “I can see that I once thought this thing.”
In the end, our ardent picture-taking may not be (entirely) a vanity project, but rather the 2.0 version of trying to stop life and time from passing on by, if only with the power of 10 megapixels.
But before we block the seven-year-old ballerinas, the Mona Lisa or that lovely sunset with a camera, perhaps we should ask ourselves more often what we might see if we sat still, empty handed, and just watched the world happen.
Someone else, after all, is bound to take a picture.