FOR many years I have found that travelling alone brings me into contact with strangers to a degree which simply would not happen were I to be travelling in company. But the development of technology of various kinds has increasingly lessened the need to interact with those around us.
Mobile technology makes a promise of complete self-sufficiency.
What it delivers is total dependence, just not on people. Dependence is shifted on to the technology itself.
There was a time when I might be approached by complete strangers to take a snapshot of them in front of a landmark, using their camera. That classic ‘we were here’ photo of the whole group for the album.
But in the last two decades, the instant display feature of the digital camera has gone a long way to make this reliance on the kindness of strangers redundant. Together with the extraordinary depth of field, made possible by very small image sensors, it became possible to hold a compact camera at arm’s length and have both yourself and the background scene in focus. Thus was the ‘selfie’ born.
I remember being on the ferry to Liberty Island in New York in 2006. As the most famous armpit in the world drew nearer, the cameras came out. I was struck by the sight of a teenage girl taking the first selfie photograph I had ever seen. The combination of auto-focus, auto-exposure and instant display meant that she could check straight away how the picture had come out and make any necessary corrections. She took the best part of a dozen photos until she arrived at what she felt was the perfect shot, then sat down and deleted all the ‘faulty’ ones.
For a lifelong photographer, this was fascinating. I had recently switched from film to a digital camera but I used mine in exactly the same way as I had my film cameras. What this girl was doing with her very compact camera was quite new, something which would have been simply too impracticable with a clumsy 35mm film camera. And it all took place as a solo effort, needing the involvement of no one else.
In the years since 2006, there have been many developments, not least the picture-taking facilities on mobile phones. But the irony of the mobile phone is that while it enables you to be in contact with ‘the folks back home’ who may be 2,000 miles away, it discourages contact of any kind with the people around you.
I find it hard to believe that this technology has not already had a profound effect on how people view strangers, which will increase as more and more people wander around staring at their screens and wearing headphones.