It all started innocently enough.
Last weekend, I headed down to a local, free music event being held here in Vancouver. While there, I ran into a bunch of friends, and then consequently hung out with them for the next few hours. Next on the agenda: a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Bard on the Beach.
My friend Deb, whom I’d bumped into earlier in the day, tweeted me this:
The idea of folks texting or tweeting during performances has become a bit of an issue lately, it seems, according to a recent article in The Chicago Tribune called The Lure of the LED Screen.
It appears that we are addicted to our smartphones. When they ring/beep/vibrate, we need, need, need to know why–who it is, what’s going on.
“I do think it’s a kind of Pavlovian response, a primitive response,” said Nicholas Carr, a writer based in Boulder, Colo., who explores this phenomenon in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” “The sense that there might be a message out there for us is kind of hard to resist. In all sorts of situations people find it harder and harder not to glance at their smartphone. And what starts to happen is that things that used to be considered incredibly rude will, as more and more people start doing it, suddenly become normal. And then it just feeds on itself.”
And from later in the article:
“There are deep physiological reasons why we find it so hard to resist the temptation to not glance at our smartphones every five minutes,” according to Carr.
“There are studies about the craving we have for new information. It’s pretty clear that when we get a new little piece of information, our brains release some dopamine — which is the neurotransmitter chemical that is how the brain encourages us to do things; it’s also the chemical implicated in most addictions. And as you get rewarded by that kind of pleasure of getting a new piece of information, you want to repeat that. … There is something very deep and very primitive in our minds that wants us to gather every little bit of information around us.”
Okay, so I will admit to a certain… fondness for my iPhone 4. Okay, I feel naked without it. But it’s a smartphone! It does everything!
When I go to the theatre, I turn it off. I don’t tweet during performances, maybe at intermission, and likely afterwards, but not during performances. At the very least, the glow of the screen, I imagine, is quite distracting (although you can dim your screen on an iPhone).
Here’s what the question boils down to for me: are we change-haters? Are we simply resisting innovation? The Chicago Tribune article goes on to cite some really cool examples of how people are integrating texting and tweeting into their shows. What’s cool about that? It’s building audience engagement. People are involved in the show in a very real way, not just passively watching it.
I know, I know, I can hear you now: The theatre is sacred. You have to have respect for your fellow patrons. Etcetera, etcetera.
But what if that’s just our “old brains” talking? The same brains that lead us to say, “well, when I was a baby, I licked lead paint off of the bars of my crib, and look how I turned out!” Because change is hard. And what if the reality that we have to face is that, in order to get folks in the door of the theatre, we need to make it more accessible, more engaging?
Or maybe not.
The ability to have a meta-conversation with an external community while you are experiencing a primary event (through texting, twitter, facebook, etc) is a hugely useful development (we are already seeing it transform how conferences are managed, how politics gets done, anywhere where the work is about compiling or influencing consensus opinion). It’s too useful to be suppressed from all but the most necessary aspects of daily life. It provides a feedback loop, knowledge base, basis for social cohesion and opportunity for reflection/revelation while an event is in process, rather than in the car on the ride home.
A paradigm shift is coming. As primary communicators (artists/performers/speakers) we will need to let go of the expectation that silence and eyes on the front of the room means attention successfully grabbed. Instead we should look for active meta-conversations about the topic/performance to signal successful absorption and dissemination of the experience.
I welcome your comments.