December 19, 2014
This year, National Geographic received more than 9,000 entries from across the world for its annual photo contest. Renowned for featuring some of the best photography on the planet – from animals in their natural state to depictions of human malaise – the publication holds the annual competition to give photographers an opportunity to get their work published in National Geographic‘s magazine. The winner of the 2014 National Geographic Photo Contest was taken by Brian Yen in Ocean Park, Hong Kong, and it’s both an enlightening (meaning that in an almost literal sense) and disappointing observation on the issue of tech addiction in our society.
Titled “A Node Glows in the Dark”, Yen’s photograph is very telling of our society’s increased dependence on technology. According to Yen’s interview with National Geographic, the photo was taken while on a train ride at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. The woman featured in the frame stood out to him mostly because she was the only person in a dimly-lit, crowded train who was on their phone:
“I spotted this woman using her smartphone while in line, and she continued to use it throughout the ride. But it was when the lights dimmed that she really stood out—no one else was using their device. I’ve long made observations about how people’s social behavior has changed with the advent of mobile communication. I’ve taken many other images of people finger-skating on their phones. So in the back of my mind, I’ve been hunting for visuals to express this profound change in our civilization…I feel a certain contradiction when I look at the picture. On the one hand, I feel the liberating gift of technology. On the other hand, I feel people don’t even try to be neighborly anymore, because they don’t have to.”
While the photograph itself cannot be denied as a work of art, there’s something deeply unsettling when a nature publication selects a photo like the above as the winner of its photo contest. I mean, there seems to be some level of irony in our society’s pursuit of rapid technological development as a form of acceleration away from antiquity, only to find this same society devolving into a Hobbesian state of nature – each of us isolated and a keeper to ourselves. What does it say about us when there are articles on WebMD about tech addiction? Have we reached a point at which, maybe, we reconsider the roles our devices play in our lives? Or has technology become our raison d’être?
Earlier this year, short YouTube film Look Up offered a poignant look at our issues with tech addiction, and showed the ways through which we miss out on life’s everyday experiences. As we near the end of 2014 and begin the new year, I think it would benefit us to rewatch it. Here’s to 2015 being less dominated by our smartphones and whatsits!
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