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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Put down your smartphone and stop watching great art through a viewfinder

Live events are a time when artists create something for us to share in the moment. Don't miss it

Comedian Chris Rock urged audiences on his tour to put down their phones and watch in real life / Getty
Comedian Chris Rock urged audiences on his tour to put down their phones and watch in real life / Getty

This is a story of a jazz musician who lost his cool. But it begins before that, on a university campus where I saw 20 or so students waiting for buses. The students were standing close to each other, perhaps a metre or two apart and yet no one was engaged in any kind of conversation with any of the others. Instead – and I am sure you can see what is coming – every student I could see was entranced by some kind of activity with a smartphone, texting, tweeting, checking Instagram or Facebook or maybe even researching for a term paper online. But it was what they were not doing which most struck me – they were not engaging with the real world; not speaking to the real flesh-and-blood people around them. Then, at a musical event with a top-rated performer, in a crowded venue, I noticed at least a dozen or so people in the front rows of the audience not just checking their mobile phones but actively posting something on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. And then there is Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, who on a recent visit to Britain suggested that the overuse of digital technology is not a good idea and that social media may be of no real help to students.

"I don't have a kid but I have a nephew, whom I put some boundaries on," Cook was quoted as saying. "There are some things that I won't allow. I don't want him on a social network."

This is not turning into one of those increasingly common newspaper articles telling you what you already know – that spending time on social media makes people less productive. The research is in. It does. Instead I’m interested in two of the heroes of our distracted age, or perhaps I should say, our digital age, desperate for distraction. There are artists and creative people who are standing up against the idea that what is real and in front of you – human beings, art, music – should take a backseat to that which is remote and available through an iPhone and the internet. One of these heroes is the American comedian Chris Rock. He banned use of all mobile phones from his UK Total Blackout tour. Fans had to put phones in pouches, which could only be unlocked once they left the arena. The idea was to stop the filming of performances and therefore to prevent clips being posted on the internet. Rock called this mobile phone filming a “major intrusion” on his profession as a comedian and he was right. He said he was encouraging people to "take one night off from being the paparazzo of your own life" and to enjoy his performance. There is an obvious business angle to this. Any comedian who works hard writing funny material probably takes a dim view of finding it all over the internet for free. But there is a far more important point and it was made by another hero of the fightback against constant distractions from the real world, the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

I saw Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall in London a couple of years ago, along with an audience of nearly 3,000 people. He began to play but after a few minutes at least a dozen audience members stood up and began filming him on their phones. Jarrett is the jazz musician who lost his cool. He stood up and lectured the audience that he was “in the moment” when he was playing and by their behaviour they were spoiling the evening, not just for him but also for more than 2,000 other people who were also “in the moment”. He went on to point out that if people wanted to watch him on television they could save money on tickets and stay at home to do so; that their phones had very low quality cameras; that they would never watch what they were filming ever again, because nobody ever did and that he would be quite happy if they left the Royal Festival Hall. Jarrett received a standing ovation, then sat down and played again.

At another event, Jarrett pointed out that this kind of rude behaviour "means those little things (mobile phones) are more important to you than 64 years of work at an instrument". Of course, 72-year-old Jarrett and 52-year-old Rock might not be the messengers best placed to reach younger audiences. Nor, despite all his talent, is another hero of the fight against distraction, Jack White. The ex-White Stripes musician is 42. But all three have begun the fight to celebrate creativity and to enjoy the here-and-now without filtering it through a tiny smartphone screen. Other artists will join this rebellion, some for business reasons, to avoid pirate recordings of their performances undercutting their financial interests. Some have already made their views known, like the singer Adele, who broke off during a concert in Italy in 2016 to tell a fan filming her from the audience: "This isn't a DVD, this is a real show". Others, like Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, might have taken it too far by swearing repeatedly at audience members before storming off stage (although those fans who complained about being told to put down their phones must be fairly oblivious if they didn't know her well-publicised views on the subject).

But most will do it like Rock, Jarrett, Adele and White because live performances are special. A live event is a time when great artists create something for us to share "in the moment" and which is never the same twice. So put down your phones, pick up your life.

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