I was speaking at an event recently in Kolkata, India that took place in the hall of an upscale hotel. On both sides of the stage were the large LED screens that have become ubiquitous at programs these days. Cameras not only captured the event for websites and social media but also projected each speaker onto these enormous displays. While giving my lecture, I kept looking out into the front rows of the audience to make eye contact. As I don’t speak from prepared notes, the flow and subject of my talks are catalyzed by connection with those in the audience. Through speaking to them, to their eyes, to their hearts, the words flow. However, as I looked out, even though the lights were on in the hall, I could not find a pair of eyes with which to connect. Almost everyone was looking to their left or right, at one of the LED screens on the sides of the stage. That would make sense for people in the back who couldn’t see me clearly. But this was not a stadium where I was far from the audience. The front row was probably only ten or fifteen feet from the podium. Instead of cranking their heads sideways they simply needed to look straight ahead (presumably much more comfortable on the neck as well) to see me. But nearly all eyes were focused on my projection upon the screens.
There is something so magnetic about these screens that they automatically hijack our attention. We have become programed and habituated to look to our screens rather than to the real world; it now barely occurs to us to turn our attention to the actual, live person in front of us rather than her magnified projection on an LED. We witness daily the comedic tragedy, or tragic comedy, of seeing a family eating in a restaurant where, instead of speaking to each other, all four of them are fixated on their own devices, connecting with cyber space but not connecting with the people in front of them.
Social media is a wonderful medium for connecting to those we’d never otherwise meet or for spreading messages and information to the widest possible audience in the shortest possible time with the least effort. It’s a fantastic tool. But I don’t think it was ever meant to become our lives. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates ever envisioned that people would begin to prefer looking at each other on a screen rather than in real life.
For Whom the Beep Tolls
Even when we are engaged in another task, not interacting with our phones, not expecting an important call or text, even then a significant amount of our brain energy is dedicated to anticipating the next beep or buzz from our phones. They have become our wayward toddlers – regardless of what we are doing, we cannot be fully present as we must allocate some of our reserve focus to make sure the kid doesn’t trip or break something. However, phones are in no danger of tripping or breaking something. They are in no danger of harming themselves or anyone other than us…
The McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin conducted an experiment in which participants had to perform a series of cognitive tasks on a computer, tasks that took full concentration. They asked all participants to put their mobile phones on silent. Then, some of the participants were instructed to leave their phones in another room. Others were permitted to keep the phones, face down, on the desk in front of them or in their pocket or handbag (on silent mode, remember…).
The results of the study showed that those whose phones were in another room performed significantly better (getting approximately 83% correct, compared to 78%) than those whose phones were face down on the desk. Simply having their phones within arm’s reach, even upside down and on silent mode, diminished the available cognitive power of the participants. Even though the participants claimed that the presence of their silent phone did not distract them, it was proven that a significant amount of brain energy was unavailable other tasks at hand, for it was unconsciously “on call” to jump at the next alert.
Given that most of us live, eat, sleep and bathe with our phones within arm’s distance, how much of actual life are we missing due to being unconsciously distracted by the mere presence of the device, even when we are not looking at it?
Me, Myself and My Online Identity
And looking at it, of course, actually interacting with it, is even worse…. Our phones are not merely appliances. They have become inherent, and dangerous I believe, aspects of our very identity. We craft and create online identities that project not who we really are but who we would like the world to think we are. Having to curate one identity is hard enough. It’s what adolescents (and adults) have struggled with forever. However, having to curate two identities – a real one and a screen one — is the stuff that daily stress and depression is made of. It’s now not only “Who am I?” but it’s also become “Who should I be online?”
We then compare and contrast our real lives with others’ screen lives. We forget that just as we carefully curate our online personas, so do they. We are struggling. However, everywhere we look online others are exuberant. A buttery croissant or cappuccino with a heart drawn in the foam becomes the criterion for a status of “very happy” with the accompanying pic of said food item and our friend’s smiling face above. Whether she is truly happy and also enjoying a croissant or whether she is sad or tired or bored or confused or frustrated and using the buttery croissant to numb her emotions – the subtlety is glossed over and what we see is she is very happy, and with a heart in her cappuccino no less.
We then, experiencing a deep and pervasive sense of not-good-enough-ness, post a picture of ourselves, with perhaps a Monet landscape in our triple soy latte (anything to beat the heart in a cappuccino) and check in as “awesome.” Except we are not. At least not until we get enough likes and ego-boosting comments on our post. Then, a friend or colleague or acquaintance who is also struggling sees our post of unbridled exuberance over a simple caffeinated beverage and feels the same anguish – why is everyone so happy except her?
And so the dominoes continue to fall, with each of us projecting that which is not, in order to cover up our insecurity over that which is, and in our simple effort to make ourselves feel better, we all end up perpetuating the very myth that haunted us in the first place: that everyone else is happier than we are.
Then the chasm between the real world and the screen world deepens, and we begin to compare ourselves unfavorably not only to our neighbors, friends and co-workers as our parents and grandparents did, but also to our own online identities. We don’t only have to keep up with the Jones or Kardashians. We have to keep up with the very roles we’ve created for ourselves online.
When we compare our real struggles, real vacillating emotional state, real dilemmas and insecurities with the two dimensional emoji world that most of social media has become, it is no wonder that youth who spend more time on social media are consequently more depressed and suicidal. I’m sure the same holds true for adults, but there is a lot more research on its impact upon youth. The rate of depression in teenagers skyrocketed 33% between 2010 and 2015, coinciding exactly with smartphones and the rise in social media platforms. In the same period, teen suicide rates increased a terrifying 31%.
Clicking Still-Lifes Of Self But No Life in My Self
And now a new craze has begun – selfies. It is of course not actually brand new, but in cultural evolution a few years still counts as new. For the history of photography and even other forms of fine art – painting, drawing, sculpture — self-portraits were a rare production, and were certainly not been an obsessive streak through our artistic heritage. Even once automatic timers became standard on all cameras so selfies were, actually possible, few people ever took them.
In my high school art classes, I cannot recall anyone drawing pictures of themselves, and it was a rare student in my photography classes who arrived with a photo of himself. Hitchcock’s habitual cameos became so famous because a cameo was so rare.
Somehow, however, the intersection of digital cameras, social media and instant feedback have created a ripe and ready soil for GenX, GenY and GenZ to fuse into GenMe. It’s no longer enough to photograph a sunset and to have my presence implicitly understood by the fact that I was taking the picture. Now it is selfie of me with sunset. It is me with Notre Dame, me with the Taj Mahal, me out grocery shopping, me in an airplane seat. The favorite artistic genre of the day has become “Still-life with self.” But it’s not even with self so much as it’s of self! We have begun to depend upon the “still-life of self” to bring life to our selves!
Phones in India are now advertised not by how good the reception or sound is, not by how few calls are dropped, but by the clarity of selfies they take. All the billboard advertisements for phones are images of Bollywood stars taking their own selfies with whatever mobile phone is being advertised. Sharper selfies, clearer selfies, easier selfies. This is now the standard upon which phones are marketed.
In our sacred Ganga Aarti each evening on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh — an ancient ritual of waving brightly lit oil lamps to the sound of mantras and prayers — one looks out toward Ganga, the river worshipped as the Mother Goddess. Where I used to see an ocean of devotees with hands in prayer, today I see an ocean of outstretched arms with phones pointed toward themselves. More important than merging and melting into the experience, one that is said to have the alchemical power to grant moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and death, more important than connecting deeply with the Divine, has become getting a good shot of ourselves having the experience. Tragically however, that very instinct is what is sure to keep me always an arm’s length, or a selfie-stick length – away from the actual experience.
Neurology and psychology both explain that the way to ensure experiences are wired deeply into our consciousness is to really experience them the first time. What does it smell like? Look like? Feel like? The moments we remember forever, the moments engraved upon our awareness are moments of great emotional and sensual content. We can still see, hear, smell that moment decades later. I fear that we are losing the opportunity to encode precious moments of our lives into our consciousness because we are not even consciously present the first time around. If we live all the beautiful, positive moments with selfie stick in hand, jostling to get the right angle, wondering about when we’ll post the photo on line, stuck in our thinking-minds, that renders traumatic moments as the only ones engraved on our psyche.
Selfies have become disastrous not only to the opportunity of fully experiencing our lives, but they have also become downright dangerous.
According to various studies, there have been nearly three hundred selfie-deaths since 2104. These are people who fell from cliffs, drowned in rivers and oceans, were electrocuted or mauled by a wild animal – all while attempting to take a selfie.
I Click Therefore I am
Where did this obsession come from?
I believe it is because we all have a deep longing to exist, but not just to exist in theory. We have a deep yearning to exist tangibly, palpably, to belong to our own life and to the world around us. By continually taking our own photos and then sharing them (because of course no selfie is ever complete until it’s been posted and shared) it’s an attempt I believe to prove to ourselves that we really exist, in some very irrefutable way. The dilemma is that rather than simply reveling in the two-dimensional proof of our multi-dimensional existence, we rely on specific feedback from others. Our sense of belonging, of connection and value is determined by how the rest of the world engages with our selfie. The selfie revolution is not merely one that is entertaining or giving a new form to self-expression. It is redefining how we understand our place in the world. Not enough likes, shares or comments is not simply a low response on social media. It is a fundamental statement about the very nature of our existence and belonging on Earth. I don’t exist until you like the fact that I exist. I don’t belong until you comment positively on my belonging. The risk here for depression and misery is obvious and worrisome.
As soon as the internet reached mainstream India about 15-20 years ago, my Guru began cautioning people, “connecting to the internet is no problem. Go ahead, connect. But please remember to stay connected also to the innernet.” It’s the innernet that actually gives us the awareness of who we are and our place in this divine world.
Taking beautiful photos of ourselves in beautiful surroundings (or not so beautiful surroundings) is fine, of course. There is nothing inherently wrong with a camera being able to flip around and shoot towards us. But can we use it as a vehicle to celebrate that which already exists rather than a vehicle for proving or deepening that existence. I exist, fully and completely within myself, and I happen to be in a beautiful spot (or a not so beautiful spot but one I deem nonetheless photographically interesting). I take this photo to celebrate my existence. I may, in my celebration, share it on line to invite others to also celebrate. But the degree to which others become involved in my celebration of my own experience should not impact me. After all, it is I who am celebrating me. If you would also like to join in that celebration, you are most welcome. But a party of one is also fine…
Art is tangible celebration of creation. Sometimes we celebrate that which is beautiful, bountiful and fruitful. Sometimes we celebrate that which is decrepit, barren and miserable. Either way we, the artists, deep dive into the experience of creation – the light and the dark, the textures and sensations, the infinite range of color and form and sound – and the pearl with which we emerge from our dive is what we present to the world as art. If selfies are the new form of art, so be it. But let’s remember then what it is – diving INTO creation and emerging with an image. It is that deep dive, the drenched connection to creation that births the image, not the image which births our existence.
Thus let us shift the twenty-first century Descartean concept of “I post a selfie therefore I am,” to “I am, I celebrate my am-ness, therefore I take, or don’t take, a selfie.”
The Ultimate Selfie
How to experience that am-ness? Ironically, one could it say it is by taking an inner “selfie.” Most of us live in our outer world – our appearance, our career, our financial status, our relationships. We build an identity out of these as blocks. But if we take the advice of the sages and mystics of all the world’s spiritual traditions and turn that eye inward, we experience a self beyond appearances. We experience an “I ness” that remains constant throughout the ever changing seasons of the body, throughout the ups and downs of our financial worth or social status. If we are able to sit still, with eyes closed, and breathe deeply for long enough, we find a space between our thoughts, between the vacillations of the mind. If we can hold our attention on that space, it expands and in that expanded space we catch a glimpse of the true self –light, love, consciousness. If we can hold that experience in our mind’s eye, it makes for the ultimate never-fading selfie.
And of course we can’t forget the crucial intranet – our real-time, real life connections that, despite what our current brain habits may insist, are actually much better face to face than face to screen. Staring at a picture of a sumptuous feast for hours will do nothing to satiate my hunger. Rather it subtlety and insidiously increases it under the guise of feeding me. In order to be nourished and nurtured by that food, I must reach through the screen, take it in my hands and carry it to my mouth. I must experience its feel, its smell, its taste as I chew and swallow. Only then can it enter my bloodstream as nourishment. A simple grape or slice of bread or stick of carrot actually eaten is infinitely more satisfying than a seven course meal on my screen. In the same way, we may have a lot more screen friends than real friends, and our screen identity may be a lot more exciting than our real identify. But it is those real, tangible connections and real, three-dimensional experiences that deepen our existence. Let’s try, at least every once in a while, to look straight ahead at the full people in front of us rather than let our attention, and lives, be hijacked by our screens.