Skating over the holidays at New York's Rockefeller Center, America's skating rink, one can't help noticing in the crowd of tourists and locals that everywhere someone is peering into a little screen in a gloved hand. A boy waiting in line one switchback ahead plays a Game Boy, pumping his fist after each tiny victory. Fellow tourists, armed with digital cameras, ask my group to take pictures of them with the gigantic New York City Christmas tree and the statue of Prometheus in the background.
Down on the ice, there is a dangerous clot of people obstructing traffic. Skating abandoned, they, too, are after shots of the tree. They stand shakily, arms outstretched, tiny viewscreens glowing. Skaters notice the hazard at the last moment. Some duck. Many slip, fall, or collide with other skaters.
Everybody has a tiny helper, a gadget to enhance or capture the experience. Does it help? Are people having more fun? Will they remember these times better? There's a dad in line, trying to return a call to his office. His 20-something daughter, the local girl attending college in the city, scoffs, telling him he's pushing more buttons than he needs to. This man with the Midwestern face evidently has some learning to do before his gadget is as helpful as it ought to be.
Prometheus, who delivered the secret of fire to man and so is the mythic father of technology, looks on.
Dodging the picture-taking, you get the sense that, for many standing there on rented blades, this is the whole point. As it has been for years among tourists, the object is to gather proof of one's presence in certain places. The tiny screens have brought change, replacing the tourist's universal one-eye-shut-peering-through-a-viewfinder posture.
Today's photographic stance takes up more room. That's not its only drawback. Pressing my face to a little lens used to seem to place me in the action. It had an intimacy, no matter how simulated. But the preferred stance for digital photography is to hold the camera at arm's length, between oneself and one's subject.
The tiny screen at the end of my arm shrinks my subject to roughly half the size of my thumb. Even while I'm taking the picture, it seems less real. Later, I'll share it by e-mail, or post it to a family website. Maybe I'll first correct the red pupils we all seem to have, or digitally delete that stranger at the edge of the frame. It may never become an actual object, living on only in laptop screens.
I have a digital camera with prodigious capabilities. Prometheus would marvel at its size (small) and number of megapixels (large). Time was when each photo took effort, so you made them count. Every click of the shutter represented a trip to the drugstore or photo studio. Today, the barriers to entry are so low that I will whip out the little screen for the most banal of scenes.
Do these increase the connection I have with my intended viewers, or do they trivialize my subject? I like to think it's the former - I am willing, now, to capture the images of daily life, instead of posing everything. My parents, now loving grandparents, see real pictures of what it's like to live with us and our kids, not staged dioramas.
But there is less reverence on the part of all of us. Even if my image production is meager (I've never been a prolific photographer), I think less of each example. I can manipulate it, share it, watch it on my TV. With a picture phone, I don't even have to remember to bring my camera. The means of capturing images are always there, on my belt, so they don't mean as much to me.
But what's worse, is that with the instant ability to step out of life and record it, sometimes I'm only halfway present. Some of my favorite experiences now unfold on tiny video screens while I swivel to and fro to catch the action. Was I really there? Honestly, it's hard to say.
• Brad Rourke is a consultant who works on public issues and ethics in Washington. He writes a weekly column, 'Public Comments,' available at www.bradrourke.com/pc.