So you see people snapping shots of themselves on their iPhones and Droids and other smartphones doing all sorts of things in the world. Walking down the street. Eating a meal. Hanging out with friends. Looking at something interesting. Getting ready to go out earlier in the evening.
You name it, somebody’s snapped a picture of themselves doing it (or about to do it, or immediately after they’ve done it).
Taking selfies has more recently gotten some folks in a tizzy. Psychologist Sherry Turkle takes the lead in the charge against this particular form of navel-gazing in yesterday’s New York Times.
Now you’d be wrong — albeit I’d forgive you if you’ve forgotten — if you believed that taking “selfies” was new. While the term for taking self-photos is new, people have been taking selfies for well over fifty years now.
As the technology has improved and cameras have gotten smaller, lighter, and more portable, the increase in this behavior has also naturally enjoyed an upswing. I remember as a young teen having a portable camera that I would take with me to document my experiences as I went on vacation with my family to far away exotic places like Niagra Falls or the Pennsylvania Dutch country down the road from where I grew up.
Now that our cameras are with us all the time, is it any great wonder that people enjoy using them to document their lives — you know, the reason people buy and use cameras in the first place?
But whereas I just see a natural historical progression that’s been slowly going on for nearly a century, Turkle sees something far more insidious:
A selfie, like any photograph, interrupts experience to mark the moment. In this, it shares something with all the other ways we break up our day, when we text during class, in meetings, at the theater, at dinners with friends. […]
Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are. The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us “on pause” in order to document our lives.
Yup. And that’s exactly what we kids were doing for fun and adventure in the 1970s. Now, though, the technology has made it so you can do it every day instead of just on special occasions or a vacation trip. And for some, it’s this “dailyness” of taking photos that is a problem for them.
But I don’t buy that just because we do something more often, it’s automatically a bad thing. Technology does change our lives — constantly and incontrovertibly. The automobile changed everything about our lives, as did the radio, the telephone and then the TV.
Most of us see this as technological and societal progress. But just as there were those who feared the death of the use of the horse as our transportation mainstay, there are those who fear the death of the type of conversation and connection they grew up with as being equal to the death of conversation and connection, period.
Turkle may not realize it, but she seems to be engaging in a common logical fallacy called Appeal to Tradition — that things were better the way we’ve always done them. Because the new way of connecting — multi-tasking conversations between those with you face-to-face and those with you virtually — doesn’t fit the traditional way of connecting, it is inherently a lesser form of connection.
The implication, with very little proof (outside of heart-warming anecdotes), is that this form of connection is inferior to the old form of connection. Without the empirical, scientific data to back up this assertion, I couldn’t say. But I certainly wouldn’t be as conclusive about such beliefs as Turkle appears:
These days, when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device. In a movie theater, at a stop sign, at the checkout line at a supermarket and, yes, at a memorial service, reaching for a device becomes so natural that we start to forget that there is a reason, a good reason, to sit still with our thoughts: It does honor to what we are thinking about. It does honor to ourselves.
Except that Turkle ignores one important point — it’s still our choice when, where and how to be alone. If we want to be alone in the line and be with our thoughts, some of us still do that (I see it every day). If we, on the other hand, prefer to be entertained for a few minutes because standing in an endless post office line while waiting to mail a package only brings thoughts of, “Incompetent folks, why don’t they open up another lane?” — is that really so bad? I’m actually disengaging from a negative thought that could lead to a negative mood and distracting myself with something positive, like Words with Friends.
I’m not the only one to pick up that Turkle seems to believe there’s One True Way of Connection in her world. Jason Feifer, over at Fast Company, notes:
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.
Feifer does a more more thorough and delightful job in picking apart Turkle’s op-ed than I’ve done here, so I encourage you to head over there and read it now: Google Makes You Smarter, Facebook Makes You Happier, Selfies Make You A Better Person
Here’s Sherry Turkle’s original op-ed: The Documented Life