Let's not miss the larger picture

Updated: 2017-02-27 07:37

By Anisha Bhaduri(HK Edition)

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Last summer, I went to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum to admire an exhibition featuring some of Claude Monet's signature artworks. It was a Sunday and the crowd was huge. Delighted that the serpentine queues leading to the tickets counters somewhat eroded Hong Kong's reputation as a "cultural wasteland", I entered the exhibition area, only to be greeted by the sight of viewers jostling for a snap with a slice of Monet in the background.

There was not the silent reverence one might associate with an encounter with a piece of history, no sign of stray art students one might expect at such places absorbed in trying to reproduce what they saw before them, and no admiring parents attempting to explain to impatient children in tow what made that Sunday so special.

Well, while Monet may not be to everyone's taste, what could have become a memorable artistic journey, albeit short, for (most) visitors that Sunday ended up in routine fixation with the smartphone. What the smartphones captured was secondary - the act of pressing the button, of compressing the moment of self-indulgence into a digital file, was what made the owner's day.

Let's not miss the larger picture

I'm reminded of another visit to a museum in Hong Kong in the company of a doctoral student. When I wanted to know why she was spending her time clicking photographs of exhibits with her smartphone instead of trying to learn more about them from the short descriptions provided so thoughtfully by the curator, she said because that's what everyone else did; the texts could be studied later, what mattered was documenting the visit. I still don't know what bothered me more at that time - the tendency to adopt a herd mentality unthinkingly or tossing out a chance to savor an experience first-hand that no amount of poring over thoughtless digital files can bring to life later.

While obsessive self-absorption is a matter of personal failing, it becomes disturbing when popular sanction gives it the power to challenge propriety and invade privacy.

It is precisely because "everyone else was doing it" that bystanders busied themselves shooting with smartphones footages of victims' agony during a recent arson attack on the MTR instead of lending a hand.

The first victim of extreme self-absorption is usually empathy, when the "self" is successful in edging out the "social". That is why people, mostly young people one must note sadly, live for digital reality.

Isn't this at odds with multiple programs run in schools to foster fellow feeling? Or has the regimen of institutionalization run so deep that a boy scout must rise to the occasion only when the lesson is on?

We live in a real world, with its agonies and imperfections. And technology is supposed to make the journey a little easier - certainly not turn us into self-indulgent automatons. In fact, a walk down that path may prove to be self-destructive.

Remember Narcissus?

(HK Edition 02/27/2017 page8)