What a Piece of Work is Man

Mobile Phone Video
sabelskaya/Bigstock.com

As if Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t already cool enough, he’s now in the first performances for his version of Hamlet on stage. When tickets were made available last year, it became the fastest-selling production in British history. There’s only one problem: as soon as Cumberbatch begins to utter to be or not to be, a handful of people yank out their smartphones to try to record the scene. To what end?

To share as bragging proof that you were there? To turn into some kind of remixed or reworked media like a GIF? To rewatch over and over as a self-made souvenir?

Cumberbatch, for his part, is pleading for restraint. The Guardian posted a video of him on the street post-performance asking reporters to work their information-disseminating magic and get the word out. “…There’s nothing less supportive or enjoyable as an actor being onstage…it’s mortifying. And I can’t give you what I want to give you which is a live performance that you will remember, hopefully, in your minds and brains–whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent–rather than on your phones.”

What has happened to our sense of appreciation and capacity for enjoyment without capturing, posting, and hashtagging? It’s not enough to be at a thing: we have to record evidence of the thing, share the evidence of the thing, and replay the evidence of the thing again later–almost as if we were never even there and we need to prove to ourselves that we were.

Through the lens and microphone of our multifarious pocket technologies, we distance ourselves from what’s on the other side, and eliminate the possibility for the kind of memory our brains have developed to record in their own biological way: complex, emotional, sensory-rich; deep in story, context, and potential for recollection.

Have you ever been alerted by a smell that suddenly brought you back to a vivid moment earlier in life? Something that reminded you of that one day at your grandparents’ house, or that one concert with your high school friends, or that road trip with your lover? When the memory was formed, we were silent and still enough to knit together thousands of little strands of experience into something that we would remember in our minds and brains. Remember for a long time. Something that could transform who we are as a person. Something that would shape our future for the better by connecting us to the rich human experience we were in the midst of.

In a tech-saturated world, we have to put limitations on ourselves to maintain a healthy ability to appreciate what’s there right in front of us. To recognize skill and artistry. To observe beauty. To see truth embodied. To experience a transcendent moment. Perhaps even to feel a sense of healing and wholeness. If you think it’s ridiculous to get those things from standing still for an hour and letting the world wash over you, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. Let the great performers perform unimpeded and unfiltered–Benedict Cumberbatch, that musician you love, Mother Nature, and anyone else–and be transformed by moments and memories that will long outlive and exceed the likes you’d receive for cutting it into an oversimplified, shareable file.

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