When you take a selfie, your soul is ripped away like meat off bone. You are a shell of a person, the selfie having captured the last life in your eyes. This, finally, is the deadening conclusion printed in the New York Times yesterday after our months of collective selfie obsession. "It does things to us," author Sherry Turkle warns with a trembling finger, "changing not just what we do but who we are."
This is a familiar form of scaremongering. Facebook makes you lonely! Google makes you stupid! Apple Maps make you go the wrong direction on the highway! That last one, of course, is true. The rest? They’re based mostly upon misinterpreted science—studies, say, that show neural pathways altering in response to computer use, just as the brain does when you learn to drive a car or play guitar. "Change" is not always bad; it can be natural. But just look at how Turkle casts it: It is an existential threat.
I know a few things about selfies. I launched a Tumblr called Selfies at Funerals, which was one of Tumblr’s most viral of the year. It culminated rather spectacularly with President Obama’s selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. I’ve also taken plenty of selfies—not at funerals, but just about everywhere else, as has every friend and colleague. Despite what Turkle says, we are not victims because of it. Anyone who finds value in technology should resent the condescension.
Turkle isn’t the only one to make these arguments, but she makes them the loudest and most frequently. She has a book called Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, and she’d like you to buy it. You’re more likely to do that if you’re afraid of your cell phone, so she’s stirring unnecessary fear founded on either total misunderstandings or intentional ignorance. Which is it? To find out, let’s pick her latest piece apart, selfie by selfie.
Last spring, I had the occasion to spend a day with the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari discussing our mutual interest in the psychology of texting. As we walked through Los Angeles, people approached him every few minutes not to ask for an autograph, but to demand a photograph. Mr. Ansari is gracious to his fans. He explained that instead of a photograph, he would offer a conversation. He inquired about their taste in music, what they liked about his performances, his stand-up, his sitcom "Parks and Recreation." His fans were mollified but they were rarely happy. They had to walk away with nothing on their phones.
Let’s assume that Aziz Ansari does this all the time, even when he’s not trying to make a point with an anti-technology academic. That is unusually generous of him. And here, Turkle sets up her strawman: There is an ideal, pure, and uninterrupted way that people should connect. Let’s give it a name: The Perfect Talk. As you’ll see as we go through her essay, Turkle is always finding that technology blocks our capacity to achieve The Perfect Talk. That is the core of our loss, the thing technology has robbed us of.
In this instance, what is The Perfect Talk? It is a fan coming up and having a meaningful conversation with Aziz Ansari. Turkle doesn’t consider that perhaps fans don’t want to connect with him in that way—not because of selfies, but because actors and fans have a transactional relationship. The actor produces, and the fan receives. I’ve met many of my favorite actors and athletes, and though it’s fun, I often have nothing meaningful to say to them. I just want the experience of saying hello, and a memento.
A selfie beats an autograph, and sometimes it even beats a conversation. It just does. And that’s okay. We want different things from different people. We always have.
A selfie, like any photograph, interrupts experience to mark the moment. … The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us "on pause" in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations "on pause" when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.
Turkle claims an activity is either an experience or an interruption. It isn’t that simple. Have you ever pulled your friends together for a photograph, and struck a pose? Have you ever crowded heads with your boyfriend or girlfriend, making faces into a camera to make each other laugh? These aren’t interruptions of a moment; they are a moment. Some selfies are frivolous, of course, but so are some conversations. Technology can create togetherness. Turkle won’t concede this.
Then she raises the stakes: Selfies not only take us out of our experiences with others, she claims, but also rob us of the ability to reflect "on where you are and what you are thinking." The funeral-selfie takers on my Tumblr may have seemed disrespectful, but consider, for a moment, that most were expressing themselves in the most genuine way they thought to. Childhood is solipsistic; we see the world through our own experience of it. The selfie gave these kids a moment to quite literally look at themselves in their environment, and reflect on where they are and what they are thinking. It provided what Turkle claims it stole away.
Yes, their selfies look different from whatever Turkle did in her introspective teenager years. But that doesn’t mean introspection isn’t happening. What does she want—for kids to sit still and meditate? What kid did that even before the iPhone?
We don’t experience interruptions as disruptions anymore. But they make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything. I talk to young people about etiquette when they go out to dinner, and they explain to me that when in a group of, say, seven, they make sure that at least three people are "heads up" in the "talking" conversation at any one time. … All of this has become the new normal.
It’s true, some kids can be rude. But they’re also rabid communicators. Turkle’s right: We’re witnessing a new normal. Here are some other grumpy seniors that stared down a new normal:
Socrates, who came from a culture with a strong oral tradition, was concerned by the rise of people writing things down: "[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves."
In 1906, composer John Philip Sousa feared how recorded music would destroy the ability to socialize at parties: "The country dance orchestra of violin, guitar and melodeon had to rest at times, and the resultant interruption afforded the opportunity for general sociability and rest among the entire company. Now a tireless mechanism can keep everlastingly at it, and much of what made the dance a wholesome recreation is eliminated."
In 1925, Princeton University Dean Howard McClenahan tied the car to a moral crisis: "The automobile gave increased opportunities on Sunday and thus lessened the chances of church attendance. The general effect of the automobile was to make the present generation look lightly at the moral code, and to decrease the value of the home."
History is full of Turkles, and naturally so. Hers is such a terrifying idea, and yet such an appealing one: If we are at the vanguard of social change, then we—that is, we the elders, roughly ages 30 and up, who can remember a time before the latest disruption—are the precious and special last bearers of humanity.
It’s flattering, but it’s untrue. We aren’t special. We just grew up doing things the way we learned to do them. Now we see the next generation acting differently, and we cannot imagine it working. We forget that this is how it’s always been. We forget that we experimented as well. We turned out okay.
We have every reason to believe that President Obama revered Nelson Mandela and thought deeply about his relationship with what Mandela stood for. But when he took a selfie at Mandela’s memorial service last Tuesday, he showed us how he, too, lives in our culture of documentation. It is easy to understand how he, like most of us, did not allow himself an uninterrupted time of reverie.
Obama took that selfie—a groupie, really—two hours into a four-hour ceremony that was full of dancing and music. He’d written and given a speech. He’d reflected, and he’d shared his thoughts. He’d surely allowed himself "uninterrupted time of reverie," either at the service or before. But now he was sharing an experience with those near him, and that experience was made possible by a camera.
Turkle imagines that any interaction with technology somehow negates all the time spent doing other things. She also imagines that we must devote ourselves in only one way to every task: At a dinner table, we are only serious and focused on conversation; at a memorial service, we are only mournful. That is not the way we live. It’s never been the way we live. And that’s the beauty of technology, which Turkle cannot see: We can use it for all purposes, to express joy and sadness, to have long conversations or send short texts. We made it. It is us.
I see the most hope in young people who have grown up with this technology and begin to see its cost. … A 14-year-old girl tells me how she gets her device-smitten father to engage with her during dinner: "Dad, stop Googling. I don’t care about the right answer. I want to talk to you." A 14-year-old boy reflects: "Don’t people know that sometimes you can just look out the window of a car and see the world go by and it is wonderful. You can think. People don’t know that." The selfie, like all technology, causes us to reflect on our human values. This is a good thing because it challenges us to figure out what they really are.
These quotes aren’t from teenagers who "begin to see [the] cost" of technology. They have grown up knowing nothing else. The change already came. What these kids are expressing is the joint frustration and wonder of youth, and nobody’s giving up their iPhones.
There is a danger in inaccurately interpreting the effect of technology on kids. The journal Pediatrics displayed this in 2011, when it triggered a media storm by suggesting that Facebook causes depression. In fact, says Massachusetts psychologist John Grohol, who sits on the board of the journal Cyberpsychology, the studies showed no such thing: They just showed that depressed kids use Facebook, as do happy kids. But the Sherry Turkles of the world only trumpet the negative. "So if a patient comes in complaining of depression, the doctor could say, ‘You need to cut back on Facebook,’" Grohol says.
That doctor would have identified the wrong culprit, because he was convinced it was the obvious one. That’s the danger of listening to Turkle.
Is it good that a dad pays more attention to Google than his daughter? No, of course not. That guy should put down his phone. But we should be careful about distinguishing between actual problems and perceived ones. The phone is not, by itself, the problem. In fact, if that dad closed his Google app, opened his camera app, and took a selfie with his 14-year-old daughter, I bet she’d be thrilled.
They’d have had a moment. Turkle wouldn’t recognize it.
[Image: Flickr user Sarah Van Quickelberge]