THERE was a moment during the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night when the veneer of glamour was stripped away — and it was not when the wrong envelope was opened. The producers of the show decided that it would be fun to surprise one of the Hollywood tour parties by leading them off their coach into the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles to meet the A-list stars in the front row. Bringing ordinary people into a celebration of artifice was a risk, but the organisers assumed that they could bank on a degree of awe and astonishment, both of which would work well on live television. Perhaps the tour party felt those emotions, but there was no way of telling: their reaction on seeing the star-studded audience was merely to raise their cameraphones higher and start filming. Here was their chance to meet their heroes in the flesh, but the host’s entreaties to get them to lower their phones and actually shake hands with the likes of Denzel Washington, Casey Affleck, Naomi Harris, and Meryl Streep were complied with only reluctantly. Mahershala Ali, accepting the award for best supporting actor in Moonlight, quoted his teachers, who told him: “It’s not about you.” That was certainly demonstrated on Sunday night, as people whose career has made them spectacles were treated as such. Film stars are now merely things to be filmed.
However fitting a verdict this might be on Hollywood, the episode was an example of a much deeper problem in contemporary society. Each day, about 95 million photos and videos are uploaded on to Instagram; and this is just one of the social-media sites. On 95 million occasions, somebody stopped interacting with the people around him or her in order to capture a place or a person through a small lens. A few of these images will become treasured memories, shared by many, but most will never be seen again. Children (especially the first-born) routinely have hundreds of shots and videos of them taken. Each time, a game is halted, a moment is arrested, and the child learns early what many adults now believe: that life is to be performed, not merely lived. It is easy to sound Luddite, and we welcome the increase of good-quality images sent to us by our readers; but it must be recognised that most new technologies entail a cost, and this is paid before people realise how great it is. Sometimes it is slight: the accompanying shot of this leader in draft adds nothing to the relationship between writer and reader; if anything, it distracts and trivialises the exchange. But research is beginning to hint at a more worrying damage to society from gadgets and habits that inhibit interaction. And what of the still small voice? Spiritual leaders teach that God speaks in the here and now. But the cameraphone turns the focus from this present moment to elsewhere and later. One Lenten discipline might be to set one’s phone aside, to seek God face to face.