Is banning smartphones from cultural spaces justified, or plain snobbery?

There is a backlash in the UK from actors and musicians against what some see as the selfish use of mobile phones during stage performances

Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City more than 10 years ago, he once went to Barcelona for a conference to discuss the future of the media and technology. Someone in the audience asked Mr Bloomberg which of the many electronic devices he had mentioned as changing our way of life would finally be the most important in our homes and workplaces.

Would we as consumers first turn to smart TVs or smartphones or our latest high-powered laptops? Would there be some other device – a smart cooker? A smart car? – that would become our indispensable tech dream?

Mr Bloomberg smiled and said, in effect, “all of the above.” He has been proved broadly correct. You could add to the list of new and interconnected devices that have changed the way we live, products including smart doorbells and anti-burglar devices or smart speakers. You might also add products that could change the way we die, too. Sometimes they are called “smart bombs” or precision guided munitions.

Perhaps asking the Bloomberg question differently would be more revealing. Is there any one piece of electronic equipment or device that you would be most reluctant to part with?

For many musicians and actors, it would be a blessing if smart phones were employed by smarter users

I would guess that 50 years ago people might have said the electric bulb or perhaps the TV. Nowadays surveys suggest the most popular electronic product worldwide is a mobile phone or smartphone. Smartphones now can help us perform the tasks the Bloomberg questioner was suggesting.

One device enables us to call friends, check bank accounts and emails, search for information, read a map, engage with social media, watch TV, as well as act as an alarm clock. We take all this for granted, but there is a 21st century problem – an increasingly vocal backlash from some performers, actors and musicians against what some see as the selfish use of mobile phones during stage or artistic performances.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been at an event or concert where sections of the audience choose not to watch the real, unfiltered cultural event on stage. Instead they prefer to view reality through a tiny phone screen, while recording the performance. How much of what is recorded is ever watched again? Is it just a clip on social media, almost like electronic graffiti boasting “I was here?”

There is now also growing pushback from irritated performers. The British tenor Ian Bostridge recently sang Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. It’s a highbrow work based on French poetry. Bostridge asked the audience to put their phones away because they were distracting. We can all understand that. And Bostridge presumably did not know that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with whom he was performing encouraged filming on phones and sharing clips on social media.

It’s a dilemma for those wishing to widen audiences while avoiding the intrusion of flashing phones alienating existing fans and that dilemma extends way beyond classical music.

The jazz pianist and composer Keith Jarrett memorably stopped a London concert I attended by demanding (assertively) that people put their phones down. He wanted the audience to focus on his performance. Most of us applauded. Then last month a well known British band in a grand central London venue used a recorded film clip at the start of their performance to insist that they did not welcome camera flashes from mobile phones when they were playing.

And at a much less high profile venue, a few days ago a young member of my family was a finalist in a singing competition. The audience was instructed that photos would be taken by a professional (and unobtrusive) photographer. Family members were forbidden to use mobile phones to film or record any part of the performance. Now, you could argue that blanket phone bans are a kind of cultural snobbery.

Alternatively, you could say that most concert goers do not pay for tickets to watch other audience members jump around waving smartphones and selfishly distracting the performers. Personally, I don’t want to watch an actor or singer become irritated because some audience members are selfishly more interested in what they can put on social media than experiencing the event live in reality in front of them.

In Paris, the Louvre has had a similar problem. Their rules say “you can take photos and videos in the permanent collections if they are for personal use. However, you are not allowed to use selfie sticks, flash or lighting.” This seems like the right balance. In some shows and performances – Beyonce, live, for example – thousands of people in the audience filming on smartphones don’t matter.

They may even add to the joys of the show. But for many other musicians and actors – and many other audiences, including visitors to the Louvre – it would be a blessing if smartphones were employed by smarter users.

A smart user would understand that this most important electronic device of the 21st century is not a substitute for seeing and hearing real-life artistry live and in the moment.

Published: May 15, 2024, 7:00 AM