Often when I encounter something beautiful—a swiftly passing sunset or a timeless work of art—I experience a subtle disappointment in the midst of the bliss.
This same sensation arises sometimes when I’m engrossed in deep conversation with a friend. I’m struck by a desire to hit a pause button somewhere in the universe and take the thing and put it in my pocket for preservation.
The advent of the ubiquitous smartphone camera almost provides such a button. André Bazin, a French film critic, once said that “photography does not create eternity, as art does; it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.” Smartphones have made it possible to embalm each passing moment of the present and share them immediately with our friends through social media.
Thinkers such as C.S. Lewis and Friedrich Nietzsche warned about the dangers of living too much in the future or in the past. They noted that both distract us from the all-important present, “that point at which time touches eternity,” as Lewis said.
It’s tempting to think that smartphones help tie us more tightly to the present and help connect us more closely to people by enabling us to embalm and share images from our lives instantaneously. The pictures that crowd social media, though, are not actually the present, for—however immediate—they are moments that are already completed.
Grammatically speaking, these pictures are moments that exist in the present perfect, the just-now-and-no-longer.
The completed aspect of the present perfect is an experience of life, not as the present, but as the most immediate past. Thus, it is susceptible to the pitfalls for happiness that Lewis and Nietzsche laid bare. It’s also a new experience of history that invites reflection for the age of the smartphone.
The Present Perfect
An experience of connecting to others through images in the present perfect is similar to Lewis’s description of riding a train with our backs to the engine. We watch each moment pass by the window without seeing the broader context of the actual present, as we would if we were facing forward.
When we submit our attention and relationships to various media of the present perfect, we submit them to historical interpretation. Lewis describes historicism as “the belief that men can … discover an inner meaning in the historical process.”
I wonder if, similarly, we think we can derive some real connection to our friends by viewing pictures of what they had for breakfast today while on their getaway vacation to Paris. Are we not both being fooled?
Perhaps. But do we not deserve some amusement? And isn’t a pseudo-connection to our loved ones better than none at all? Of course, a thousand times, yes. Unless, however, that amusement and those pseudo-connections lull and dissuade us from taking actions in the actual present—the present continuous—to connect with others and enjoy the moments of passing beauty in real time.
The Age of the Smartphone and Amusing History
In “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” Nietzsche warned that living in constant awareness of history is an obstacle to happiness. He complained, “We are all suffering from a consuming fever of history and ought at least to recognize that we are suffering from it.”
Consider the cattle, how they graze, he suggests, completely and always in the present moment, oblivious of the past, its triumphs and regrets. They are completely free to enjoy the present.
We humans, though, can paralyze ourselves by being overly conscious of the bewitching past. Nietzsche feared that man in the 19th century was becoming too engrossed in a sense of history that would result in an enervating lethargy in the present. Consider now, man in the 21st century, habituated to checking his phone 150 times a day, stuck in the present perfect of other people’s lives or the exhibition of moments from his own life.
Nietzsche believed that happiness involves taking noble actions, but he saw that in order to exert ourselves in such activity we must become unhistorical. We must learn to shut off the memories that plague our indecision.
“We need history, certainly,” he admitted, but “for the sake of life and action, not so as to turn comfortably away from life and action.”
Accordingly, he identified three types of perspectives on history: monumental, antiquarian, and critical. And he noted certain uses and disadvantages for each. We can look back at history and be inspired, gather a context for our lives, and maintain a sense of justice that transcends our present. But we can also be deceived by our impressions of people in the past, trap ourselves in an unwholesome context, and come to think that we are more enlightened than all those who came before us.
The age of the smartphone introduces and confronts us with a new type of history, with new uses and disadvantages. Call it Amusing history.
Amusing history is useful for distracting us from anxiety with innocent diversions. It also helps us stay informed of the lives of others, providing a medium to communicate via image often more than word.
Amusing history is a disadvantage, however, when it draws us away from the thinking and action required to deal with the causes of the anxiety we’d like to ignore. It can also contribute to the construction of an illusion that we are connecting on a genuine level with other people, when all we are doing is affirming one another’s projections of an ideal self.
This is no Luddite call to destroy our technology, but, rather, a reminder that technology is meant to serve life, not turn its users into the cogs of its own framework.
Lewis proclaimed that “the present is all lit up with eternal rays.” Let us not let the cool, blue glow of our phones blind us from seeing the grandeur and significance of those rays.
Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.