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Posted at 11:07 AM ET, 12/07/2012

The mobile bystander


A subway platform stands deserted at Columbus Circle on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012. (Peter Foley - BLOOMBERG)

Our mobile devices give us a remarkable ability: to document every moment our lives. But in our relentless attempt to curate all of these experiences for others using a variety of filters, are we missing perhaps the most important filter of all — a “moral” one?

The latest example of the moral ambiguities of curation in a mobile world came this week, when the New York Post published a photo taken seconds before a man who had been pushed onto the subway tracks was fatally struck. The photo was published on the Post’s front page with the chilling headline, “Doomed.” This wasn’t the first time a witness to a casualty has opted to capture an image rather than help the victim, but this time, the subway photo controversy extended beyond a single photojournalist faced with a moral dilemma. According to accounts of the tragic NYC subway incident, there were other onlookers as well, snapping photos and recording video in the fateful 22 seconds, rather than attempting to help the victim.

If this tragic scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Malcolm Gladwell described a similar type of event in his book, The Tipping Point. In 1964, thirty-eight different New Yorkers refused to help a woman who was being murdered in their neighborhood despite hearing her cries for help. The case of Kitty Genovese was so inexplicable at the time that psychologists have even given it a name - the “bystander effect.” That people could be aware of such a tragic event happening in front of them and still be unresponsive could only be attributed to a societal diffusion of responsibility. Each of the 38 bystanders felt that enough people were witnessing the event that each of them, individually, was no longer responsible for becoming involved.

If anything, our mobile devices have intensified this. When faced with difficult or awkward social situations, we often retreat into observer mode, confident that the appearance of being engaged with our device will absolve us of any individual responsibility to act. Yet, when we become silent curators of the world around us, we run the risk of distancing ourselves from our subjects so completely that we no longer feel the moral imperative to act.

During the early years of the social media boom, expert commentators liked to say that society was moving from a “lean back” mode to a “lean forward” mode. Instead of leaning back and passively consuming TV on our couches, we were leaning forward and adding our voices to the conversation via the Web. We seemed to be more engaged with what was happening in the world around us, interacting with others across many different platforms and seemingly turning every event into a chance for active participation.

It would be a shame if the mobile revolution turns out to be a step backward, transforming all of us once again into passive curators of the world around us, rather than active participants. Consider that, as a society, we have reached a point where it is completely acceptable to see two people having dinner together, curating photos of the food in front of them rather than conversing with each other. Many of us seem to walk around with our heads permanently down, furiously tapping away on our tiny screens rather than engaging with others. Then, when an event happens — tragic or otherwise — many of us reflexively turn to the screen to capture it, putting us all at risk of turning into mobile bystanders.

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By  |  11:07 AM ET, 12/07/2012

 
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