Takathur, Documenting, and Experiencing


Seeing a dolphin jump out of the water is amazing to see in real life. It's why thousands of families flock to places like Sea World. It's why I took my kids to Sea World as well. As we settled in to watch the show, I looked around and realized something. The kids in the crowd were all sitting in anticipation, waiting to see the dolphins perform these amazing feats. The parents were readying their phones. As the show started, the kids were mesmerized, and the parents were mesmerized by their phones. The kids were ooh'ing and aah'ing, trying to get splashed but not get splashed at the same time. The parents? Pinching, zooming, and adjusting for a better angle as they tried to grab amateur footage of the dolphins and their kids' reactions.

At some point in the past couple of years we have reached a tipping point where we are more concerned with documenting an event than experiencing it. Think about the last wedding you went to, or take a look across the crowd at an important moment at a sporting event. At each moment, there are phones everywhere recording away. In fact, it is impossible to host any kind of Islamic event without getting inundated with requests to record it, post it, and so on.

Harvard Business Review ran an article by Daniel Gulati entitled, "Stop Documenting, Start Experiencing" - this is an article I've come back to dozens of times and quoted in various khutbahs. One of the points raised in the article is that of psychological hoarding which I found incredibly fascinating in light of Surah Takathur.

Gulati contends that we must choose between documenting and experiencing an event. And that with the advent of social media (likes, followers, and so on) and smartphones, that people are now more apt to want to show off the accumulation of what they have 'done' - it's almost as if there is more enjoyment in posting a picture of yourself at Niagara Falls and getting 20 likes than there is to simply stand there and viscerally enjoy it.

Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you, until you visit the graveyeards [Surah Takathur].

This ayah is traditionally understood in regards to wealth, but it has general application. It can be competing with others in status or even kids competing with each other over who has a nicer toy. Social media has enabled a competition of experience. We want to post our highlights and show off what we have done. At a certain point we're sometimes less concerned with how much our kids may be enjoying something as opposed to being able to point at a photo many years down the road and say - "See! You had fun as a kid thanks to me!"

When I went to Disney World as a kid, we stopped and took a few photos, and went about enjoying the park. Now a trip to Disney involves photos at the entrance to every ride, a Vine video while on the ride, and hundreds of photos in between. It's almost as if the vacation is interrupting the photo-ops rather than the other way around.

I've come across a number of articles recently - like this one on Medium - that decry the materialist ambitions of society to seek happiness through things like nicer cars. Their contention is that money should be spent investing on experiences as a means toward true happiness.

We have to stop thinking of experiences as a notch in the belt. Another imaginary internet point. Another highlight for others to like.

True memories aren't made with an Instagram filter. They're made with a sentiment that comes from the emotion of an actual experience. It is those moments that you think about from a long time ago that make you smile.

Have you felt uncomfortable at an event from excessive documenting by others? Have you struggled with it yourself?