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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Sunday, September 29, 2013


The slang of social media has mostly escaped me, but I did run across the term 'selfie" recently and thought it a wonderful expression of the anxiety of the age. Smart phones have made it child's play to take your own picture (a button will reverse the camera lens so you don't even have to contort) and I imagine selfie-ness is exploding. I suppose to most people it's an expression of individuality, but for this somewhat crabby older person it recalls, among other things, the time I spent in Asia watching the portraiture of sameness: all the hikers, for example, dressed the same and posing for the same picture at the top of the mountain, or the family with a monk on the grounds of the Buddhist temple, or all the pretty girls smothered in cherry blossoms and gazing eternally upwards. In the West the astounding technology is producing a similar maddening sameness. We used to say "he's buried in the pages of a book" but now "he's addicted to the glow of a screen." Just ride the subway or walk downtown streets to see the mass appeal of individuality.

Obsession on our own faces is nothing new. But this seemingly desperate need to make them not only beautiful to mass standards, but also to promulgate them as widely as possible seems to me to betray a deep anxiety. It's an anxiety that defines parts of America, and that is fear of the Other. If we record every detail of our lives on Twitter, and cavil ceaselessly on the peccadilloes of our friends on Facebook, and post our faces on Instagram in every conceivable light and mood and grimace and smile, then we won't fear so much the unknown. By sheer repetition life will become safe, and the Other - the black, the violent, the liberal, the Muslim, the gay - will be rendered irrelevant, and invisible, and if they do arrive, they will be disarmed by the screen. The tools that promise us the world drive us behind walls. If we tweet hard enough, the whole world will become like us. The self bears investigation only in pictures, seldom in conversation, or a walk on the shore, or the pages of a book.

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