Does My Phone Make Me Less Moral?

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We all heard some version of the story that at the scene of some tragedy many people used their phones to take pictures before using them to call for help. I think the ubiquity of camera phones has pushed me to take less pictures because it’s no longer my unique personal gimmick to over-photograph everything. Maybe this would make me the one who sticks out and calls 911, I don’t know. Probably not, in fact, as it’s taken me quite the internal argument to justify calling the police when there’s screaming nearby and somebody’s being threatened, assuming someone else probably has. (Eventually I did it, because it should never be embarassing to be the second person to tell an emergency dispatcher that somebody might get hurt.)

Overexposure to tragedy isn’t a new subject, with the speed and formats of communication changing vastly over the past century or so, and happy to bring us footage from wars overseas for the masses to sit and absorb from the safety of their homes. We can read about civil strife in South Sudan, the seemingly endless struggle for Syrians to overthrow their government, shootings galore in the God-Blessed America, and just how much Israel is doing to its non-Israeli people. If this desensitizes us and wears away at our ability to empathize and care about the world, it’s been doing so for a long time.

This was previously restricted to home and places where news would be present…which was practically anywhere you wanted it to be. If there wasn’t a newspaper around or a radio on, there would be someone who read or heard. News networks are played throughout airports and even in restaurants and lounges where sports are typically played, if something major happens they will change it to the news. On September 11th there were TVs tuned into news channels throughout campus, wherever they could extend the cable connection.

There’s been plenty of time for this type of sensory overload with bombardments of tragic stories from halfway around the globe to affect the morality of people, to jade us into dark embittered souls. Having a phone handy that can get this information immediately anywhere is hardly a smidge further towards ubiquity, and anyone who wants to get away from overstimulation can. This is one of the least tempting things about having a phone.

When something is happening around us, though, the phone may make the difference between walking by and ignoring it and stopping to take a picture. Which is less moral? Not everyone in a densely crowded area will be calling emergency services or applying first aid. Some will hang around just to watch with their own eyes so they can tell other people or talk to the media when journalists get to the scene. Being able to spread photos of events as they’re happening is a step up in cashing in on being there when it happened and it may tempt more people to try.

I have yet to be in a situation in which my phone enables me to do bad things, or care less, than I ever did before getting a smart phone. The cynical ennui that’s observed in young people is no more than it has been in past generations, and it has nothing to do with something they have in their pocket. They’re just not happy to see you.

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