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I Snap, Therefore I Am: Solipsism and the Selfie
Solipsism: the belief that the only thing that can be known for certain is that one exists…
A tree falls in the forest when no one is around, and who knows what happens. But if I enjoy a magic moment of solitude and fail to take a selfie, did it ever really occur? (Zen Buddhists, help me out here.)
Not long ago, camera shyness was commonplace. Watch on-scene TV news reports from the Sixties and you’ll see people freezing up, staring dumbfounded into the lens and reeling from the microphone. But not anymore.
Everybody’s in show biz.
These days we’re all minor luminaries with voracious personal paparazzi: ourselves. We simply can’t wait to get inside the frame, either as subjects or as snarky photo bombers. Proof of this penchant: it is estimated that over 800 billon photographs will be taken in 2014, and that some one million a day will be selfies.
Share the self-love.
With all this me-first fascination you might think we’re the most egotistical beings in the universe. Though hard to argue, it is interesting to learn that, left with a camera, monkeys (macaques to be exact), will take selfies, too.
Nor are selfies mere ego strokes. President Obama and the Pope have famously joined in. And Ellen DeGeneres’s “groufie” at a recent Academy Awards show was the most retweeted image ever. As if being the most powerful man in the world isn’t enough. As if Streep, Pitt and company need more publicity.
Some digital decorum, please.
Assuming the Pope is the pinnacle of selfie-dom, Breanna Mitchell must be the nadir. The Alabama teen earned the world’s opprobrium when she posted a smiling selfie taken at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, warbling, “I’m famous, y’all” when the photo went viral. Others have been criticized for shots snapped at the 9/11 memorial.
Narcissism is nothing new.
Does all this make selfies symptomatic of The New Narcissism? Not quite. The first known selfie was produced by Robert Cornelius, back in in 1839. Indeed, Cornie’s labor of love was also one of the first pictures ever taken of a person. The introduction of the Kodak Brownie Camera in 1900 spawned selfies facilitated with mirrors. But, long before that, Zog the Caveman couldn’t resist scratching pictures of himself on the walls of his cave. And the venerable Rembrandt managed to create nearly one hundred self-portraits over the course of forty years.
The fact is, self-validation is an ancient human need made much easier by technology: lightweight smartphones digital cameras, wireless communications plus sites like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. It took Zog hours to scrawl even a crude likeness of himself. Robert Cornelius spent hours producing his daguerreotype before he could share it (exposing himself to noxious chemicals in the process). Now, we’re seconds away from lording ourselves and our “amazing” plate of Beef Wellington over millions of less fortunate followers.
Smile for the camera.
Perhaps because of these advancements we now connect to places, brands, moments and each other much differently than before. The fact is, the world is simply more meaningful “in the context of us.”
So, forgive us our casual conceit. It’s part of being human. And let’s cut people like poor Breanna a break, shall we? Major shifts in technology and the rise of social media have forced big changes in behavior. All that power takes some getting used to.