Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Selfie Shaft

The first time I ever saw what I call the “Selfie Shaft” was a Facebook posting by Adam, my cousin Megan’s boyfriend.  Now Adam is a right cool dude with a fine beard and seems to be set firmly on the path to Olsonhood.  Just keep on doing whatever Megan tells you to do and things will work out fine buddy!

Adam posted a picture of himself and Megan hanging out the sunroof of their car, cruising the desert somewhere, and was a bloody stunning photo.  But the strange thing was the shot was from overhead, which made me wonder how the hell he was able to do that.  Did he set the camera timer, fling it up in the air and hope it spun into the correct position at the exact moment the shutter goes off?  Unlikely.  Was there somebody else standing on the hood of the car taking the photo?  It seemed a romantic moment, so that too was unlikely.  So I looked closer at the bottom of the photo and noticed that he was holding something like a stick, which I finally deduced must be attached to the camera.

It stuck me as pretty cool, but I simply assumed it was a high tech, expensive piece of gear that only a camera nerd would buy.  But as soon as we landed in Southeast Asia ten weeks ago, I learned I was wrong.  So wrong.

Everybody here owns a Selfie Shaft.  Backpackers, package tourists, locals - hell I even saw a homeless dude with a Selfie Shaft snapping a photo of himself lying on the sidewalk, doing a thumbs-up with a hundred baht note he had scored.  After seeing everybody walking around with one of these, I easily found one in the market and had a closer look.  It is basically a telescoping plastic rod with an auto-closing mechanism at the end which you can slip your smartphone into.  It comes with a small, round, cheap, plastic device with a button that triggers the camera shutter via a Bluetooth connection and takes a photo.

What is the benefit of using a Selfie Shaft?  Well if you are all by yourself, and want a nice photo of you with that big, beautiful Buddha in the background, then it is an awesome tool.  But in tourist land it is used for a different reason; you no longer have to rely on strangers to take a photo of you.  Which brings me to the point of this little essay – how gadgets like smartphones and Selfie Shafts have turned backpacking from the most social, life-changing, mind expanding adventure shared with new friends into a mostly singular exercise, documented precisely with a never ending series of status updates with staged selfies, and automatically touched up photos.

The smartphone is the ultimate digital Swiss Army knife, capable of replacing a dozen other devices and fitting easily into your pocket.  Of course, people don’t put them in their pockets because they always have them in their hand, looking at them.  Or holding them up in the air taking a selfie (if they are barbaric enough to have not yet picked up a Selfie Shaft in the market).  Or talking into them.  Or being talked to by them.

The great irony about the smartphone is that the social media apps inevitably installed on them, meant to build an ever-present, online, omnipotent, connected community has done exactly the opposite – driven us into a self imposed solitude and prevented us from living in and enjoying the moment.  It has given us the ability to construct an instant, invisible fortress of solitude around ourselves, because no real life person standing near one absorbed in their smartphone dares initiate a conversation.  It is the ultimately anti-social device, masquerading as a great societal connector.

Imagine this scene.  Actually, you don’t need to imagine it, and neither do I, because we all see this anytime we step into any public place where people used to go to visit and talk.  In Khao Lak a few weeks ago I was by myself in a bar in a crowded market enjoying a beer while the rest of the family was shopping.  Four young backpacker girls walked in talking to each other and laughing, then ordered drinks at the bar and sat down at a table.  Bing, the smartphones were instantly pulled from pockets or bags and the conversation stopped dead as the four of them stared zombielike into their phones, thumbs rapidly scrolling across the screen.  Nobody talked.  Once in a while one of them would giggle to themselves.  They periodically reached over, picked up their drink with their free hand, took a sip, and then placed it back on the table.  After twenty minutes, one of them actually put her phone down and looked around, remembering for a fleeting moment that she was in a tropical paradise.  She actually appeared interested in talking to her friends, but as none of them would raise their eyes from the hypnotic, tractor beam of their devices, she simply picked hers up and got back to telling her online friends how much she was enjoying the sights in Thailand.

In a McDonald’s on Khao San Road in Bangkok this week I watched two young guys in a restaurant order their food, eat their entire meals, drink their drinks and not once did they say a word to each other.  Their eyes and full attention were glued to the smartphones in their hands.  They may as well have been sitting in the janitor’s closet.

Are we so bored with each others’ company that we can’t be bothered to talk to each other anymore?  Is it not an insult when we are sitting together in a restaurant and I spend the entire time with my face in my phone instead of talking to you?  Based on what I’ve seen, it sadly seems to be the case that this has become quite socially acceptable.  But how strange.  And how sad.

The advent of the built in digital camera with a zero marginal cost of taking pictures has greatly contributed to our newfound inability to live in and appreciate the moment.  Before digital cameras we used to have to buy film, load it in the camera, take a specific number of photos (12, 24 or 36 from what I can remember) then remove the film, take it to a film lab, and then come back a few hours later and pay for your developed pictures.  Most of them would be crap, but there would usually be at least a couple gems.  The point is, there was a tangible cost every time you hit the shutter release button.  Because of this, when that adorable monkey popped his head out from the tree canopy to look down, you would take a picture or two and hope you got lucky.  Now, with the smartphone digital camera, you take fifty haphazard, thoughtless photos in the hopes that one turns out, then you simply delete the other 49…if you get around to it.  If not, who cares, computer memory is cheap.  The marginal cost of taking a photograph is effectively zero so people feel happy (and even compelled?) to constantly have a smartphone directly between themselves and whatever it is they came to see.

Are there benefits of having a smartphone while backpacking?  Of course!  Being able to book accommodation, look for things to do, research things online and keep an eye on email for any emergencies back home.  Yes, they are invaluable tools, but this tool comes at a price if you do not put it in its place.

Things have definitely changed, for the better in many ways, but for the worse in others.  The last time I backpacked, if I wanted to get a photo of just me, then I’d simply ask somebody nearby to take it.  Sometimes that little bit of human contact would turn into a short term friendship which would initiate the discovery of an interesting coincidence, or provide me with a useful piece of advice, or in most cases, just give me somebody to talk to for a few moments.  If I was curious to know about a potential day trip, I’d ask around the hostel to see if anybody had done that particular trip yet, and see how they liked it.  I wouldn’t generally book any accommodation ahead of time, so when I arrived at a new place I’d usually team up with any other independent travelers I could find and try to hunt down a decent hostel together.  All this extra contact with strangers, some who parted ways as strangers and others as friends, was a significant and enjoyable aspect of the journey.  I’m not sure if it happens this way anymore, and that makes me a little bit sad.

Maybe I’m just getting older, or perhaps crankier.  But honestly, what does the future hold for us if we continue to use technology to replace human contact?  I think there is a way to use the technology properly, but it comes down to each individual to do that and, more importantly, ask it of others.

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