A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I spent the morning touring the Louvre museum in the elegant city of Paris. The museum holds a vast collection of beautiful, illustrious pieces of art, and a portion of history so rich that one feels as though they’ve taken a ride with a loony whitewashed scientist in a DeLorean.
The museum’s most illustrious piece is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for which the halls of the establishment are peppered with sign posts. As we sauntered ever closer to the famous painting, it became increasingly difficult to swing one’s arms in a casual fashion, and we found ourselves assuming a penguin-like waddle. We finally reached the section in which it was housed, packed to the rafters, to discover that we couldn’t see the painting because the view was almost entirely blocked by arms held aloft, taking pictures with mobile phones.
It’s astonishing to think that the vast majority of the museum-goers standing in front of the Mona Lisa weren’t using their god-given eyeballs to look at it, but instead believed it more important to look at it through the lens of their smartphone’s camera, because heaven forbid they’d miss the opportunity to take a picture of a famous picture. Many of us have become so detached from our own senses, and so obsessed with modern technology, that we’re abandoning the opportunity to actually experience the marvels that are in front of us. A smartphone camera is no substitute for a fortuitously-evolved pair of eyes, with capabilities to distinguish the tiniest, delightful details within a painting. Neither does it house a curious brain, the ponderous stirrings of which add fresh colour and satisfaction to an art-viewing experience. It just takes a crappy, distanced picture, which can be trounced by thousands of professional pictures on the internet, and is probably going to be glanced at a couple of times before never being looked at again. Meanwhile, the time that should have been spent examining the picture and appreciating its beauty has been lost. Only through concerted mindfulness are we able to open up our senses fully.
In another section of the museum, we witnessed a middle-aged Asian lady frantically dashing across the hall, taking a picture of a painting before darting to the next one. She seemed genuinely stressed about this arduous task, as though missing a painting would result in her beheading upon reaching the museum’s exit. It was hilarious to witness, but also quite depressing. She was so desperate to capture her experiences that she failed to experience them. This is like visiting one of Paris’ mouth-watering restaurants, taking a picture of the menu and then leaving. All she seemed to want was a record of the moment; a far-cry from the magnificence of the real thing.
This behaviour isn’t limited to museums. The digital age finds us consistently immersed in a hypnotising world of bits and bytes, at the expense of just experiencing the exquisite world around us. Our phones cannot tell us what the local park smells like after a long-awaited rainfall, or convey the sweet crispness that permeates the air. They’ll fail to transmit to us the feeling that emerges when looking up at the magnificent dome of the Pantheon in Rome, a heavenly beam of light illuminating the exquisite carvings below. A digital recording of your child’s first steps, in which your eyes are fixed onto a small screen to make sure you’re getting the perfect shot, is a dismal travesty.
The only way to fully experience these things is to put our devices away and pay attention. It makes no difference how many pixels our cameras can capture, or how high the frame-rate of our video. When our attention is focused on recording the event instead of experiencing it—so anxious to freeze the moment in time for eternity—we’re relinquishing what’s valuable about it: the experience itself. This might be considered a kind of meta-existence, in which we’re stepping outside of the real world in order to capture and record information about it. This reality seems unbelievably perverse, and yet, so many of us exist in this way, unaware that we’ve become record-keeping spectators in our own lives.
Our only hope is to resist our unrelenting desire to capture our experiences, relinquish the absurd virtual likes that we’re addicted to, and look a little closer at the world around us. Our lives are enriched through mindfulness, and impoverished through obsessive record-keeping. Our blessed senses open up a world of marvels, which can only be properly appreciated by paying attention. How can one even consider prioritising a virtual Facebook like over the sensual delights of the Niagara Falls? Or witnessing an American bald eagle soaring above your head, instead of fumbling to open your camera app?
The Mona Lisa is ruined when viewed through a digital screen. If Da Vinci painted her in our time, one might argue that her half-smile is one of mocking condescension, in response to the knowledge that most of her audience are living a hollow, ghost-like meta-existence. If we put away our cursed phones, her smile might broaden into something wondrous to behold.