Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The agony of empathy

My wife and I were in New York recently, and as part of our week-long whirlwind of art, artisanal donuts and culture, we went to see School of Seven Bells play live.

As is now the case, not quite half the audience spent a considerable amount of time taking photos or shooting video of the concert with their smartphones. I'm old enough to remember a pre-cellphone era when cameras were banned from concert venues, along with any kind of audio recording devices. The only people allowed to snap were professional photographers. Normal chumps like myself had to rely on their memories of the event. This is why we oldsters hang onto ticket stubs -- although those are slowly disappearing as well.

A year ago, I would have been truly annoyed at the Japanese woman (call her Mary) beside me who spent almost the entire concert taking photographs. Mary had a very expensive camera (not smartphone) with a heavy-duty lens, but due to her height (she was quite short) she had to keep putting the camera above her head and snap blindly. This was somewhat distracting and also somewhat confounding to me.

But it was no longer annoying, because I now try to tap into my empathy reserves. Thanks in part to my five-month stint at the CFC's Media Lab last year, coupled with my new employer's focus on design thinking, I'm trying to do a better job observing how people act in a given situation. I then try to figure out why they are acting the way they are. From this, I try to think of ways to augment or shape that natural behaviour in new and interesting ways.

From my point of view, it's agonizing to realize that Mary's defining experience of attending the concert was getting the perfect photograph. She might not have been as "in the moment" as I was, but what she wanted from the concert was something very different than I did, and I need to be comfortable with that fact. Her perfect photograph will serve as the anchor point for a particular memory.

It is tempting to try and argue that there is only one proper way to experience a concert. I certainly had this thought when I saw The XX two years ago at the Phoenix. Along with the smartphone photo bugs, there were a surprising number of people texting their friends or sharing their reactions on social media. Personally I would find this disruptive as all hell, but to the texters and the tweeters, the concert would have less value and meaning if it wasn't shared with others. My experience and their experience of that same concert was certainly very different, but it's tricky to get into a debate about which approach is quote-unquote better.

Getting back to empathy, one goal might be to find a way to further enhance the experience of those who like to take photos during concerts, without this detracting from those who decide to not obsessively document the show. After the concert, my wife and I brainstormed some ideas. For example, in the near future you might be able to instantly send your concert photos to a public cloud service that projects those images on a screen behind the band, moments after the photo is taken. Or the band could assemble a stop-motion video for each song they play live using the various photos taken at a show -- they could even take advantage of time-stamping and other metadata embedded in each photo to accomplish this. And since the various photos would all be taken with different cameras, different filters and from different angles and parts of the room, you'd get a unique, kaleidoscopic, crowd-sourced visual document of the concert.

Those who chose not to take photos could visit the band's website the next day and compare their experience with the photographic jigsaw. This would be great, since there was one very talented guy taking some amazing photos with his smartphone. I'd love to see those.

Empathy is not an easy thing to deploy, but it can take you in interesting new directions. What's important to me, however, is that you can still insert critical judgement into this process. It might be delayed or deferred, but not every new development is necessarily better.

And yes, I took a few photos. Three actually. For whatever reason I'm still not comfortable snapping constantly during a concert. Here's the best of the bunch.