Joker proves we can no longer imagine a world without smartphones

Donald Clarke: The item everyone claims to hate is now baked into contemporary aesthetics

‘We are so wedded to the smartphone we have trouble imagining life without it.’ File photograph: Getty Images

‘We are so wedded to the smartphone we have trouble imagining life without it.’ File photograph: Getty Images

 

There is a scene in Todd Phillips’s Joker where . . .

No, no. Come back. This is not another think piece on that film’s engagement with toxic masculinity. We’re going somewhere else. Making its borrowings from The King of Comedy explicit, Joker has Arthur Fleck, the troubled protagonist, play a humiliatingly unsuccessful gig at a Gotham City comedy club. Later on, a “clip” of the set turns up on a late-night talk show. The footage becomes viral and Arthur achieves a modicum of celebrity.

So far, so plausible. But the film is set in 1981. Where has the footage come from? Video cameras were around, but the portable Handycam didn’t arrive until 1985. It was decades before members of the public routinely filmed every event – from breakfast to a dog walk – encountered in daily life. This is very much a 21st-century subplot.

The moral? We are so wedded to the smartphone we have trouble imagining life without it. In the space of a generation, the moving image has gone from exotic novelty to a back-up system for human consciousness. We take photographs of shopping lists. We take videos of poor retail service. It will amuse many to hear that children once leapt delightedly in front of the CC cameras that relayed images to monitors in ancient television stores. The only other way you were likely to get on telly was by witnessing a murder.

Madonna complex

This conversation was already heating up when, last month, it emerged that Madonna was banning mobile phones from her Madame X Tour. “Use of cellphones, smart watches, smart accessories, cameras or recording devices will not be permitted in the performance space,” a memo barked at ticket holders.

But don’t people use smartphones to store their tickets? They do. It seems that, after scanning, “all phones and smart watches will be secured in Yondr cases that will be opened at the end of the event”. You may have to write your seat number down. With a so-called “pen”. On a “piece of paper”. Heck, you may as well chisel it on the wall with a shard of mammoth bone. Madonna will have us worshipping the goat god next.

Spend a few minutes on a bus and you’ll see data junkies of all ages focusing on their screens

Plenty of readers will, if encountering this story for the first time, be offering the former Ms Ciccone the loudest of hurrahs. It’s about time an entertainer made an effort to remove the electronic buffer between act and audience. Concentrate on the fado version of Dear Jessie now. You can always tweet about it later. Too many of us see the world’s great landmarks through only a small, oblong screen. We greet returning relatives through the same cameraphone. Despite working eyes in both sockets, we invite the device to do the watching for us when at a concert. Madonna is making a stand for the first-hand experience. Right?

Well, maybe. “Madonna wants to have an intimate experience with her audience without phones up in the air and screens separating fans from the performance,” a “tour source” told the London Times. But the fightback against video piracy is, surely, at least as important. Once, you had to buy a DVD of the latest U2 concert. Now, you can find endless shaky recordings of Where the Streets Have No Name within minutes of the gig ending. 

Maybe I’m just being cynical. 

Phoney concern

At any rate, the declared motive behind the ban is one of those arguments that generates more agreement than supportive action. That’s to say almost everyone claims to hate smartphones, but almost everyone continues to use them incessantly. Old twits whine about the young being addicted, but spend a few minutes on a bus and you’ll see data junkies of all ages focusing on their screens. Almost nobody carries a book about with them anymore. Maybe all those travellers are reading digital versions of hefty classics, but I’m betting there’s more Untitled Goose Game than Unbearable Lightness of Being.

There is similar dubious agreement over the use of smartphones in theatres and cinemas. Just last week, the actor Tom Bennett, so good in Love and Friendship, tweeted a message to all those using their screens at live performances. “YOU ARE LIT UP LIKE A F**KING CHRISTMAS TREE AND EVERYONE ON STAGE THINKS YOU’RE AN ARROGANT PIECE OF S**T!” he bellowed. A few pointed out there may be carers or professionals on call in the audience (that admirable minority really isn’t the problem here). Almost everybody else agreed vigorously. Yet cinemas and theatres are still packed with barbarians distracting neighbours with that ubiquitous illuminated rectangle. 

This may no longer be a battle worth fighting. That scene in Joker suggests the culture of the smartphone is now baked into contemporary aesthetics. Madonna may as well ask her fans to gouge out their own eyes.

Everything is awful.   

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