Mind Your Electronic Manners

Silvio Rodriguez

Call me a curmudgeon, but I am totally unexcited about the latest iPhone. It simply gives consumers a new excuse to spoil public entertainment. Here’s how. I recently saw one of the greatest Cuban musicians of all time, Silvio Rodriguez, perform at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. The audience members who were using electronic devices nearly ruined the experience. In the seat directly in front of me, a man turned on his (third generation) iPhone video as soon as performers stepped on stage, and the glare and light it gave off annoyed and distracted me throughout the evening.

I tried to ignore it, as did several friends of mine who also attended, but it was impossible. All the way down the theatre, flashes went off and lights flickered unceasingly. Why was it such a big deal? Silvio is a deeply loved troubadour, a kind of “Pete Seeger of Cuba,” a musician, poet, songwriter and founder of the New Song movement, all wrapped up in one extraordinary artist. It has been three long decades since he was able to obtain a visa to come to the US. His June tour was a rare chance for Latin American music fans to feel Sylvio’s gentle compassion and enjoy live performances of his distinctive reportoire.

It could be argued that because his performances are so precious, one must record them for future enjoyment. But that makes the show about the preservation rather than about the experience of the art itself. It also mediates the experience through a mechanism that is inferior to the real event. Rather than view a giant stage, the person recording is seeing it on a very small screen with unrefined colors and lighting. Nor does the sound quality of the devices compare to that on his nearly twenty albums.

This phenomenon takes place in other ways in society at large. For example, we watch our kids do clever things for the first time, running off to get the camera, just in time to miss their newfound exhilaration. The recorder of the experience mistakes the capture of the image for the substance of life.

Remember when cell phones first came out and they’d beep, whistle and play music wherever you found yourself? Later we adapted and realized the little machines were happily functional, but we didn’t actually have to sleep with them or use them in odd places. I’d like to see such an evolution with our relationship to the next generation of phones and other digital devices.

Don’t get me wrong. I use a Blackberry, and relish working on my Mac, but when it comes to art, I want to enjoy it in the purity of the lived moment. So, why don’t we take advantage of the technology and the art, but not at the same time. Let’s turn our new iPhones to OFF next time we attend live shows. Then teach our kids, “Mind your electronic manners.”

©Leanne A. Grossman



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