The Pornographic Gaze, Smartphones, and Virtual Experience

[UPDATE 8/10/2017] This post has drawn a great deal of attention. It seems that recording things with our cellphones is not only something we all do but also something we all feel ambivalent about at times. I almost didn’t upload this post because I was afraid it would be read in black and white. I was concerned that I hadn’t succeeded in presenting a sufficiently nuanced view. Reading the responses I received–even though they were all positive–I felt sure I had failed 🙂.

As with almost every problem we encounter in life, there is no simple solution here. I would go as far as saying there are never any solutions to any problem. All we can do is manage things as best as we can each day.

Many years ago, a friend who does anthropological research in Africa told a group of very well-meaning people that clothing given to various charities in the U.S. was being crated up, shipped to Africa, and sold dirt-cheap in marketplaces there, undercutting local tailors and driving them out of business. Producing a charity boycott was never my friend’s intention and she did her best to convince the audience to take less drastic, more subtle solutions.

In my case, I benefit greatly from my family’s use of smartphone recordings. I live on the other side of the world and the only way I get to see my niece and nephews’ activities is through recordings shared over the internet. I think this is one of the wonderful aspects of this new technology.

I’m not trying to make a blanket condemnation of taking photos or making video-recodings in any given situation, and I don’t even have a plan for how to find the right balance between productive use of our gadgets and over-use of them. I do. however, think it’s a discussion worth having, and I suppose that if this post stimulated that conversation, perhaps it wasn’t a failure after all.

Though perhaps the phrase “the pornographic gaze” was a bit over the top.


I recently attended a performance of Swan Lake with my family. I am in no way qualified to judge ballet, so I’ll just say I enjoyed the evening. Surprisingly, no announcement was made forbidding the use of cameras or other recording equipment during the performance, and the audience took full advantage of that omission. For most of the performance, the seating area looked like a lurid star-scape–dotted all over with the light of phone screens held up to record the two-and-a-half hour performance. Like the Little Prince, I began to think that “Grown-ups are very strange indeed.”

I’m not trying to condemn the people who recorded the performance. I can think of any number of perfectly valid reasons someone might want to do so. Nevertheless, I think it’s a mistake.

Many years ago, as a young traveler, I noticed something about my own behavior with a camera. If I became too wrapped up in capturing perfect pictures, I became cut off from what I was actually experiencing. I didn’t give up taking pictures (I returned to the U.S. with fourteen rolls of film to develop after a two-month odyssey through northwest China, Tibet, Nepal, and India), but I did become aware of the need to resist taking pictures of everything I encountered, of the importance of putting the camera down sometimes and just living the experience of where I was fully.

That was in the days before digital photography. The need to load film, advance film, focus (I was using a manual SLR), etc. made taking photos a time-consuming enterprise, and I think made it easier to leave the camera in its case sometimes. Nowadays, with smartphones all but ubiquitous, the temptation to photograph or record everything that happens is overwhelming.

I really do sympathize. I love a good photo–as you can probably guess. They let you share and relive lovely moments in a way nothing else does. While I personally find amateur video-recordings less inspiring, I can certainly see their usefulness in appropriate situations. I fear, however, that we are beginning to live even our most inspired moments through a tiny lens on the back of a piece of metal and plastic.

I’ve been trying tho think of a name for this way of viewing the world through a smartphone or a camera. Someone else has probably thought of a good name already. The best I can come up with so far is the “pornographic gaze.” This isn’t quite right. Leaving aside the sexual meanings of the term, “pornographic” clearly indicates a desire to titillate. Often, that is precisely the goal of smartphone pictures and videos, but I don’t think that recording a ballet performance quite falls under that rubric. In spite of this, the term “pornographic” gets at the heart of what I think is going on. At the heart of pornography is the desire to possess sexually, and we record events because we want to possess them virtually.

Virtually possessed experience has a number of advantages over actual experience. It can be stored and repeated indefinitely, and–most importantly–it can be shared. You can whip out your smartphone and show your friends that beautiful pirouette or the view from your bus window. You can share it on Facebook–you can even post it on your blog (is there a nonchalant whistling emoji?). The social rewards for sharing virtual experiences should not be underestimated. The number of likes our online personas receive can easily become an obsession, and therein lies the danger: we may feel more rewarded for living virtually than actually.

Actual experience, however, is ultimately far more fulfilling. Yes, it is irreducibly subjective and individual. There is no way to share it in its entirety with any other human, but it’s real and alive in a way that virtual experience can never be. Actual experience nourishes the heart just as true love nourishes the heart. I suspect that virtual experience ultimately proves as hollow a substitute for real experience as pornography does for real love and human connection.

As I learned with simpler technology more than twenty years ago, sometimes you have to put down the gadget and just be where you are completely. In most of our experiences, such as traveling or day to day family life, taking a few photos–or even a lot of photos– isn’t a problem as long as it doesn’t keep you from being part of the experience yourself. Some experiences, however, like artistic performances, are intended to be intense and immersive but brief. For those experiences, it’s probably  better to turn the gadgets off completely.

If the Little Prince were here today, perhaps he would remind us that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to a smartphone.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.