Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Our smartphones are turning us into holier than thou vigilantes

We have taken it upon ourselves to capture and disseminate the bad behaviour of others – but at what cost?

Try to live in the moment and be less dependent on your smartphone. AP photo
Try to live in the moment and be less dependent on your smartphone. AP photo

We are all being watched. All the time. By each other.

Our smartphones have turned us into vigilantes, on a never-ending mission to capture and disseminate the bad behaviour – or abject stupidity – of those around us. Even though it is illegal in this country to take photos or record videos of others without their consent, we have all taken it upon ourselves to become arbiters of what is, and what isn’t, acceptable human behaviour. Trial by the social media masses has become commonplace. It is George Orwell’s 1984, but with iPhones.

Those hilarious videos that we share with such glee – often, that’s just an average person having a really bad day, which is then captured for time immemorial. Oh, how we laugh at the misfortunes of others, captured and repackaged as witty memes. In some instances, ie, a certain incident that occurred in a pool this week, a clear moral – (not to mention health and safety) – line is crossed. It’s likely that the fellow in question will be remembered forever more for that single act – and the internet has a very, very long memory. His punishment, whether or not the authorities are involved, will be both severe and infinite.

Sometimes, the lines are far less clear. A few months ago, someone posted a picture on our community Facebook page of a gardener taking a well-earned snooze on a bench in one of the parks near my house. It was the height of summer and he had no doubt been out toiling under the sun for most of the day. The keyboard warrior in question was outraged that our lovely little community was being sullied thus. A lowly gardener! Daring to rest his head on our gilded seats! The person who posted the picture was duly lambasted, and reminded that taking and sharing a picture of someone without their knowledge is an illegal act. But it remains true that they felt it was within their rights to publicly humiliate a fellow human being.

Sending things out into ­cybersphere is an act that needs to be considered carefully – whether you are shaming others or incriminating yourself, as the non-Oscar-hosting Kevin Hart has no doubt learned in recent weeks. People seem to forget that once something is out there, it is out there forever. Forever ever, in the words of OutKast. There is no statute of limitations on ill-advised tweets, or embarrassing photos or videos capturing acts of extreme stupidity. While in the past a throwaway comment could be forgotten, today it can come back to haunt you at any time.

In real life, people are able to change and evolve and mature and modify their opinions – but our online selves can be cast in concrete, acting as an eternal reminder of past indiscretions. We can all be judged for things said and done in our distant past. I will just say that I am incredibly thankful that social media didn’t exist when I was a teenager.

Safely ensconced behind our screens, we are happy to act as judge and jury when it comes to the acts of others. But are we all sure that our behaviour, every minute of every day, is above reproach? It had better be – because there’s a smartphone wielding do-gooder out there waiting to capture our every misstep.

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Updated: December 22, 2018 10:57 AM

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