Kenneth Burns: Smartphones distract us from the here and now

Aug. 15, 2014 @ 03:46 PM

It was a concert by a Grammy-winning pop star, not a middle school play. But you might not have guessed that based on the way people were acting.

Boz Scaggs performed Saturday, Aug. 9, at Greeneville's Niswonger Performing Arts Center. I had a second-row seat.

All around me, audience members held up their smartphones and, like proud parents, lovingly shot video of every moment.

They made me tense.

Late in the show, Scaggs played one of his signature songs, "Lido Shuffle." (That's the one that goes, "Lido, woooooooaaaaaooaaoooh.") From my close vantage point, I saw him using body language to send an urgent message backstage.

In response, a man stepped out from behind a curtain and, scowling, shone a bright flashlight into the face of an audience member. The band continued pumping out "Lido Shuffle."

A uniformed policeman stepped over and appeared to give the man in the audience a stern talking to. A moment later, the officer approached a guy sitting near me and ordered him to put his smartphone down.

After the song, a frowning Scaggs stepped backstage. I could still see him. He was talking forcefully to someone and gesturing at the audience. He looked agitated.

He played another song or two, then said goodnight. Walking off the stage, he glared at the guy who'd had the flashlight shone in his face.

It was a shame. The show was pretty great until the commotion started.

I'm a longtime fan of Scaggs, whose music is a unique blend of rock, R&B, blues and disco. What I find appealing about him, among other things, is his preternatural smoothness, his unflappability.

Early in the show, he spoke gratefully about the enthusiastic audience. He seemed surprised that the turnout was so good in Greeneville. A veteran entertainer, he cast a spell with his graciousness and his mellow music.

By the end, he seemed angry at us. The smoothness was gone. The spell was broken.

According to Niswonger Executive Director Tom Bullard, Scaggs was not upset about the recording per se.

He was bothered by "a small, intense white light coming from the camera/phone," Bullard told me in an email. The two men in the audience fit the description Scaggs had given.

Niswonger lets audience members shoot photos and videos, Bullard noted, but they're not allowed to use professional cameras with telephoto lenses, or large-screen devices like iPads.

I guess I likewise wasn't bothered by the recording per se. People are allowed to enjoy a Boz Scaggs concert however they want.

The problem was that for every smartphone aimed at the stage, there was a small but brilliantly lit screen aimed at the audience.

This was distracting. Also distracting was the guy sitting next to me, who used his smartphone to check Facebook throughout the concert.

I was reminded of moviegoing experiences ruined by people around me using their electronic devices. The difference is that the Scaggs concert cost a lot more than a movie ticket.

There's another, bigger problem. Smartphones are changing the way we experience life around us. They're a constant distraction. I know this better than anyone.

The lure of social media is irresistible. Sure, something interesting is happening right here in front of me, but what if something more interesting is happening on Facebook? There's only one way to find out.

I'm worried we're forgetting how to be in the moment. No audience video of Boz Scaggs is going to sound or look as good as the actual experience, so why bother making one?

Sure, I've gone on YouTube and looked at audience videos of music stars I like. But the quality is terrible. Mainly they're a waste of time.

Still, I understand. Most of us walk around with powerful cameras in our pockets at all times. It's fun to use them to record special moments and share them with friends.

So maybe at concerts, special seating sections should be set aside for people who want to shoot pictures and videos.

That would leave the rest of us free to enjoy "Lido Shuffle" in peace.

kburns@themountainpress.com