Binoculars versus Cameras

I don’t normally pay attention to token gestures, but Mar 1/Mar 2 are the National Day of Unplugging. I don’t know who is behind this idea, or how much momentum it has, but I really like it. My one experience of joining a Jewish friend to observe Sabbath was both deeply relaxing and thought-provoking.

A complete unplugging happens to be unfeasible for me, since Refactor Camp is this weekend, but I am sort of pleased about the serendipity here. I am suspending my normal 90% online life to do something that strongly depends on physical presence and face-to-face interactions.  Refactor Camp weekend is also Ribbonfarm Unplugged weekend.

So while I won’t be able to entirely unplug from the Internet (let alone electricity), I think this qualifies as observance in the spirit of the idea. If you like the concept, check out that NDU website for more inspiration. Figure out a way to unplug.

While this is a start, I don’t think a token day of ritual observance and a manifesto will really make a huge difference. What we really need, to preserve our sanity and really figure out how to regain control of our agency, is to truly understand how digital/electronic power have hacked our brains, and hack the digital forces right back. They’re not as inexorable as they seem.

I want to share one particularly good unplugging hack I discovered recently, which has made a huge difference in my life. I bought a pair of binoculars. Specifically, these excellent Pentax binoculars:

binocularsI’ve wanted binoculars since I was a kid, but somehow never got around to buying them as an adult. I am particularly proud that I had the discipline to buy small, lightweight and waterproof binoculars I knew I would actually use, rather than bigger, powerful ones that satisfy gadget-philia more than observation needs.

But why are binoculars an unplugging hack?

Because they intensify present-moment sensory experience to a degree that you end up systematically choosing the present over the camera-deferred future. It is much easier to disintermediate the camera using a different device than simply trying to use it less. It’s the gadget equivalent of the solution to the “don’t think of an elephant” problem (the answer is “think of a giraffe instead”).

This moment — and the opportunity to experience it more intensely through binoculars — will be gone immediately. You have to choose whether to experience the moment or capture an impoverished digital memory that you are unlikely to ever review.

I’ve now carried my binoculars with me on several long waterfront walks, observed seabirds, container ships, trains and snowy mountains. I’ve taken them with me on a couple of long train and car rides, and to the Swiss alps. It seems to count as odd behavior. People stare when I whip out my binoculars while they’re whipping out their cameras or smartphones.

The camera today — especially the smartphone and lightweight point-and-shoot — is a dangerous device. Twenty years ago, film cameras were cumbersome enough (and film expensive enough) that most normal people didn’t experience reality through them by default. The dangerous device then was the camcorder, which tempted you into looking at the world entirely through a viewfinder.

Today, cameras being entirely digital and plugged into the Internet via wireless links means that they represent the temptation of continuous sharing. They are now as dangerous as camcorders used to be. Things in the environment start to be viewed and evaluated primarily in terms of their potential as online social objects. We see a spectacle and see an invisible Like button hovering under it. Once Google Glass goes mainstream, this will be literally true.

This power and potential is great so long as we remain conscious of what social sharing adds to the present experience. Does it enhance it or impoverish it? Does the act of sharing make you pay closer, more mindful attention to what you are looking at, or are you turning snap-and-share into a mindless operation like filing unread paperwork or retweeting unread links on Twitter?

Is your camera encouraging you to file away your life instead of living it?

These are not isolated behaviors. They represent a widespread abdication of agency and indeterminate deferral of direct experience. We are starting to inhabit a culture where we  are more likely to forward the experiential possibilities of our life to other people, our unreliable future selves, or digital systems, rather than choosing specific experiences in the moment.

I am never big on prescription, but I’ll offer one here: don’t do that.

And if you buy binoculars to counter the power of the camera in our lives today, please don’t buy those terrible camera-binocular hybrids you see advertised in Sky Mall catalogs. That would defeat the purpose.

I’ll stop here, just short of 900 words, which for me is a pretty disciplined act of unplugging in its own right, since I normally go on for at least 3000 words. But you’ll probably be hearing more from me on this topic in the future. I might even try to figure out a way to regularly observe a digital Sabbath (anyone want to write a WordPress plugin for me called “Digital Sabbath” that takes this site offline every Friday-Saturday and puts up a “Get offline!” page instead?)

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Nicely said! Now, if we could just add back in actual human interpersonal conversation with one another, that might really heal some of the gnawing and growing alienation.
    Especially up close and honest.

    I’ve got my binoculars ready — let’s go on a walk!:-)

  2. Alexander Boland says

    “This moment — and the opportunity to experience it more intensely through binoculars — will be gone immediately. You have to choose whether to experience the moment or capture an impoverished digital memory that you are unlikely to ever review.”

    This made me think of how many things I’ve overthought and overplanned for, as if I were trying to grab the moment by building a giant narrative around it. So I think an analogous decision is that you can either experience the moment more intensely through action, or try to capture an impoverished narrative that you can never truly relive.

  3. I love this post. I’ve been on two big trips in my life. The first was 8 months largely in India and South- East Asia. It was great. I took a camera. I documented. I have looked at those photos twice since I got back in 1997 and not once since 1999.

    I went on second trip starting in 2003 for 16 months covering similar regions as the first trip with 8 months through Latin America to kick it off. The debate my wife had was “digital vs film”. My debate was “camera or no camera”. She and all my friends thought I was crazy. Like, bat. shit. crazy.

    I caved. We took a camera and I got a handful of shots that were the best I have taken (the bar was pretty low). But I often left the camera in the hotel for days on end. This was good. Life without documentation.

    Now I’m a cyborg with a camera and internet connection attached to me at all times. The leash is heavy.

  4. Go make yourself a coffee!

  5. What is good about a camera is that it actually enables to stay perceptive in a sort of a hunter-gatherer mode. One begins to act in the service of a photogenic motive, seeing the world as if it wants to be photographed. At least I experienced this as mind refreshing.

    I like the idea of an unplugging day, but in my case this would obviously need to be a Sunday not a Saturday, which is the only weekday I regularly use for shopping. For a while I attempted to radicalize the idea and also drop media like books. There is a certain desire in me for a monkish austerity but more so for the experience of the transition between different states of existence. I’ve never done this and even now that I think about it again, ideas are flooding my mind what to do then and how to plan this non-event. It’s a non-starter. That’s for sure.

  6. This is reminding me of a memory I haven’t taken out of storage for a long time.

    A couple I knew went on an eclipse cruise. He took pictures, and I was glad to see them. She didn’t take pictures, but when she talked about seeing the eclipse, it seemed as though the experience was orgasmic.

    At the other end of the experience spectrum, Raboteau’s Searching for Zion describes her relatives during Katrina, one of whom wasn’t supplying urgent practical help because he was busy recording the flood for posterity.

  7. That’s the second time this week this idea has bubbled up into my feed. Hope it reaches the mainstream, because coping with the acceleration of addictiveness and not perishing for want of wonder are – as you rightly say – key to our social sanity from here on.

    The first this week was Lucy Kellaway seeking tactics to break internet addiction

    The original, for me, was Paul Graham’s July 2010 go-for-a-hike prescription

    Any other good precedents that I should know about? I suppose the sabbath and zen buddhism. The focus prescription of prayer and meditation? Reminds me of Larkin’s Church Going maybe too “though I’ve no idea / What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth, / It pleases me to stand in silence here … someone will forever be surprising /A hunger in himself to be more serious”

  8. Ha ha, “I am never big on prescription…” may be true on the basis of style but what you prescribe is usually loud and clear :-)

  9. JiaoNing says

    I always relish those times when I have moved, but haven’t yet moved my internet connection. I run a business with an online component that marries me to having the internet. But sometimes I push that changeover time, one week, two weeks.

    Those days during those weeks are. so. long. I get so much done. Sometimes I think I should ruin my credit and mess with the internet companies in a big way just to force me to be remote location only for online, and never have it at my home.

  10. This hit home for me not so much in terms of cameras and binoculars but in terms of reading. I recently started blogging and tweeting and now everything I read (online or off) I read through the lens of whether or not it would make good sharing.

    In some ways this is helpful, because it also helps me focus my thinking while reading: what is this really saying? how does it tie in to other things I’ve read?

    But there is certainly another argument to be made that it detracts from the reading experience and a fuller appreciation of the work. Or it makes reading purely for pleasure harder to justify.