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Arm's length: Does filming keep reality at bay?

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POSTED: August 8, 2012 2:22 p.m.

LONDON (AP) — Matthew Driller was holding a navy umbrella, blocking the view of spectators standing five deep and waiting to see the Olympic women's cycling road race flash past. The police came by, signifying that the leaders were closing. The crowd leaned in. "Don't worry," Driller said. "I'll move it before they come."

He did, and the first thing Jane Armston did was raise her camera, trading one obstruction for another. And understandably so: She needed to capture an image.

"It's just to have to say you were there and show people you were there," she said.

At the Olympics, it's a scene repeated hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of times a day.

We can film anything today, from anywhere, by simply extending our arm and aiming a device at the subject of interest. Then, almost as quickly, we can beam those images to the world. But is this progress? Are we starting to experience things through miniature screens rather than actually living them by being there? We are taking pictures, but we are distancing ourselves even further from the things we are taking pictures of?

"We've definitely passed a new stage in our world," says Fred Ritchin, a professor of photography and imaging at New York University and the author of "After Photography," a book about how the digital world has changed visual perception. "It's evolutionary. People used cameras ... as Kodak used to say, to let the memories begin — I think that used to be an Olympic slogan, even."

Digital technology is changing the way we interact with the world. Edward Tenner, the author of "Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology," cites a photo taken by a friend that shows visitors crowding behind a rope at the Louvre, snapping pictures of the Mona Lisa rather than attempting to study and appreciate Leonardo Da Vinci's brushstrokes.

You need the image to mark the place. It's sort of like recording your memories in a diary. Sure, NBC can capture the images better, but millions want to be their own Bud Greenspan, the late sports documentary maker, bringing the Olympics to the living rooms of their friends. People want a record — something to share with others. It's a way, Tenner says, of reliving the experience and proving you were there.

Decades after some of the earliest moving images linked the power of athleticism with the visual sensibility, people are creating their own personal Olympics, one all their own.

"The point isn't really the quality or the composition," Tenner says. "It's really kind of logging where you were."

That plays out everywhere in social media these days, from the ability to "geotag" your Facebook and Twitter and Instagram photos to the instant video uploads of YouTube to the game-slash-app called FourSquare, where people can "check in" from a location and add their favorite visuals into the mix.

It's particularly evident this week in London at the Olympics, that once-every-four-years extravaganza.

First off, it's special. Not everyone is lucky enough to see it. Noting that it might be their only chance, people line the roads to see cyclists or runners or torchbearers — and lift their arms in unison as they pass. Shots taken above the crowds make it seem as if fascist salutes are back in vogue. People strain, arms outstretched, leaning toward the object of their attention. So close and yet so far.

It's not just fans, either. Lots of athletes attending the opening ceremony — probably one of the most photographed events on the planet — felt compelled to record the event themselves. Tourists all over London sometimes seem as if they are warding off the things they've come to see, pushing it all away, looking at in on the small screen.

"The smartphone is kind of a prosthetic head and pair of eyes," Tenner says. "If Martians came to Earth, they would think everybody had this appendage they could extend when closely packed."

But now that there are pictures, ones that you can see instantly, are there really memories as well? Things are moving so quickly, and capturing an event isn't quite the same as experiencing it.

"You are joining the world of image (with) what used to be called the real world," Ritchin says.

Ritchin is among those concerned about the phenomenon. He cites the modern oddity of trying to navigate a city street, where people stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk to answer a text, missing all the stuff that is happening outside the frame. There is a paradox, he says, being with someone who, when their mobile phone rings, answers it, thus giving precedence to the device over the actual moment.

He's worried, in essence, that people have stopped being present in their own lives.

"What's scary is there is no conversation about it," he says. "We don't talk to each other about this. ... It's a real problem for the future of our society."

Spectators like Driller, a 28-year-old sports physiologist, are also watching these changes with some disquiet.

"I'd much rather have seen it than have a picture to post on Facebook," he says. "If you're crazy enough to come out in the rain, you want to see the event — even if you get a little wet."

Don't tell that to Jane Markley, walking down the road near Hyde Park Corner busily scrolling through her images after the race. Had she missed the picture, would she feel as if she missed the event?

"Absolutely," says the 60-year-old from Washington, D.C. Then she found it — hurrah! — proudly showing off the fact that she did indeed get a few cyclists and some water spritzing up from the wet pavement.

There it was. Irrefutable proof: "I was there."

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