A few months ago in St. Petersburg I saw a dad place his toddler son on the stone wall of a bridge over the Neva River. The bridge was very high and the river would have been very cold, and the child stood there swaying just long enough for someone in the group to snap a picture, and just long enough for me to nearly have a heart attack.
I imagined them later, posting that picture online: "And here is Alexei on a bridge above the Neva! He didn't die, thank God, so we can show the picture at his wedding one day. But even if he had we would still have the picture. LOL." And the photo would have received likes and shares and many thumbs up, except for perhaps for a dissenting voice from the grandmother: "I'm never speaking to you monsters again. Now give me the boy."
That day in St. Petersburg made me think about the consequences of an all-sharing, all-posting world. Not just the physical dangers, but the philosophical ones, too. Would that dad have not enjoyed the day, the river, his son, if he didn't have a photo of it? What would an undocumented day look like, in a world where countless moments are shared daily on Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and platforms that I am too old to know about? What if there were a day when nothing at all was posted? How would that day exist in our memories?
In the 1980s, there was a series of popular coffee-table books called A Day in the Life, in which professional photographers spent one day documenting the life of a particular place. The books were very popular, though the concept seems incredibly quaint now. Imagine the world distilled into a hundred photographs of ordinary moments, instead of a billion. Yet the human mind isn't infinite: You can absorb a hundred photos, but a billion is cacophony.
Instead we have a world fractured, sometimes perilously, into endless self-reflecting shards. The mountain rescue service at Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park had to warn people to stop taking "stupid and dangerous selfies" after a series of tourist tumbles, the latest involving a Canadian (who, thankfully, lived.) There is an entire genre of "selfie fails," many of them macabre: the German who fell off a mountain at Machu Picchu; the two young Russians who pulled the pin on a grenade and took a picture with it; the American student who thought it would be epic to have his photo taken with a wild bear. I think you know where this is leading. They exist now only in pixels.
It has now fallen to the guardians of the natural world to remind the rest of us idiots to leave its inhabitants in peace, and keep our cameras to ourselves. "Don't take pictures with bears," should not be a warning aimed at anyone over the age of 3, and yet the U.S. National Park Service had to issue exactly that advice to campers. Stay away from newborn seal pups, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned the hordes descending on New England's beaches, adding, "There is no selfie stick long enough." The advice is already too late for a mountain goat chased by crowds into the ocean in Alaska, or the baby dolphin loved to death on a beach in Argentina.
Would those animals still be alive if people hadn't harassed them to death? They might have been eaten by wolves or sharks. There is no way of knowing, just as there's no way of knowing whether that sunset will be as beautiful if you don't take a picture of it, or if the French toast will taste as good if it doesn't appear on Instagram. This is a puzzle of absence, which is the hardest philosophical puzzle to solve.
Yet I can't be the only one who wonders if, to paraphrase Stevie Smith's poem Not Waving But Drowning, we're not living, but documenting. I find myself in agreement with the singer Adele when she called out a fan recording her at a concert in Italy: "Could you stop filming me with that video camera? Because I'm really here in real life, you can enjoy it in real life rather than through your camera." I know she said this because another fan recorded the incident and put it on Twitter. Oh irony, you are a keen knife.
I would benefit as much as anyone from a "post nothing" day, considering that I once posted to Facebook a picture of a pea that looked like George Burns. (In my defence, it did look freakishly like George Burns.) Last summer, I took a dozen pictures of the Washington Monument and returned to my hotel room realizing that none of them were as lovely as the thousands of Washington Monument photos that already exist, accessible in an instant. I could have spent that time touching the stone, or listening to the tour guide, or talking to the other people on the tour. But they were all busy taking pictures, too.
Along with many of you, I'll be heading out on vacation this week, and I intend to record none of it. "Pics or it didn't happen," the kids say. We'll see about that.