This is the second of two essays on Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, first published over a half-century ago, in 1962. The first piece, published last month, explained the pseudo-event concept and pointed to its ongoing relevance in a world where Boorstin’s observations have proved prescient. This second article addresses issues of personal-identity associated with the advent of the smart phone. The smart phone, one of the most powerful tools in history, arrived and was adopted at warp speed. Nothing I will say here about pseudo-events recommends its disuse. At the same time, the implications for person and society are significant.
There is nothing inherent in pseudo-events that make them good or bad, destructive or constructive, realistic or unrealistic, apt or useless. Some are, some aren’t, and there are continuums. Americans want, like, and enjoy pseudo-events. I like my iPhone and depend on my computer; I couldn’t last the morning without them. I take selfies too. In general, we’re talking about the psychological and social consequences of technological progress.
What then is Boorstin concerned about in highlighting the emergence of pseudo-events? His eye is focused on how pseudo-events mislead, how they befog, how they control, how they delude, and the consequences for people and nations. We deceive ourselves by them. Culture consists mainly of pseudo-events that stick as habits and govern consciousness. Boorstin is giving us eyeglasses to mark and measure the distance we’ve moved away from the ordinary, from nature, and from the basic facts of life. In short, his book, and essays such as this one, can help people see more clearly and think better, thus enabling better personal decisions. They help in undeceiving ourselves.
The iPhone has been around only since the summer of 2007, less than nine years. It and other smart phones allow users to speedily jump into innumerable pseudo-events. These include a phone call, a voice mail, an exchange of text messages, an exchange of emails, a taking and sharing of images and videos, a shopping excursion, an information search, a fact check, a loan calculation, a bill payment, a ticket purchase, reupping a library book, an imaginary trip to Barbados, a war game, a virtual visit with friends on social media, and of course, the mother of all pseudo-events, the “selfie.” And that’s just the start of the event generation possibilities. Virtual events through smart phones are infinite. The whole world is in our hands.
The ‘selfie’ represents a cultural shift in the history of selfhood and personal identity. To be specific, the ownership of the photographer role changes. Where previously another person took your picture, now you take your own. The implications are dramatic:
- The “I”-“me” dialogue by which we silently talk to our “selves” requires the “I” to externalize itself into the place of the photographer, and undertake his decision-making process from that point of view.
- Who is this photographer? What are his allegiances? That won’t rouble everyone, but it could trouble some, the sensitive conflicted few..
- The “I” has to scan extant and probable social situations, evaluating prospects for honor and shame. Likewise, images of oneself have to be assessed for risks and rewards. Are these acceptable representations of “me?” Consequences can be anticipated. Payoffs can be imagined.
- Because a multitude of possible scenarios could be photographed, and a throng of media friends are ready to view the posted image, and because I may not be looking my best today, and I’m unlikely to get the bad flicks returned later, the situation can be intense, bothersome, and anxiety provoking.
- Once out there in the world of social media, the selfie image, like any published product, may survive for eternity, and, as we all know, today’s leisure suit can transform its wearer overnight into tomorrow’s prototype of the fashion dork.
- Selfies, given the passage of time over years and decades are likely to be consequential in unforeseeable ways, and are potentially regrettable.
- In the immediate future, after “sharing” a selfie, who knows what comments about the image will return to the sender, and worse, who knows what mean comments will be made about you? Or, from what monsters they will come from the creepy depths of the swamp? Who even knows who will see it?
- We can be hard on ourselves—unfriendly, angry, accusatory, judgmental. The “I” can get depressed about what it sees as the inadequate “me.” Suicide shows that in the bleakest cases the “I” can turn into the worst enemy the “me” ever had.
- Much of the threat to selfhood and personal identity stems back to the computer, Internet, and point and shoot camera eras. The smart phone pushes the peril closer to the top, to the verge of danger. Time expended on line—in gaming, electronic chats, videos, and the like—can take up scads of solitude previously available for inward experience and social development.
- Incessant picture taking can lead to an unhealthy concern for and fear of others, and a devaluing of one’s opinions in relation to the opinions of peers. A paranoia may develop of being watched, surveilled, and filmed. Depression may ensue.
- Anxiety can go off the chart. A recent Supercuts commercial is instructive. A young woman, in her twenties or early thirties—who knows for sure; faking exact age is a demand and art form of consumer culture— is going to Supercuts, because, the voice over artist assures us, “she wants to be ready.” This is followed by a quick panorama of her in a plethora of feature haircuts, as seen in a variety of desired situations— dances, dates, work scenes,etc., including a selfie. Wow, is that the same person?. We are assured at the end that she’ll “jump back” into Supercuts, as may we, whenever she’s feeling or we’re feeling “not ready.” The image of the person “ready” for action with a new haircut masks the anxiety that the commercial presumes and brilliantly reveals.
Our world seems less capable of developing confident, integrated selves than it once was. Divided, split. fractured, dueling selves are more likely. Schizophrenia and attention deficit disorder are ascendent.
The selfie, and other pseudo-events considered normal in today’s electronic culture, threaten personal identity and selfhood in multiple ways.
- It transforms private identity into a series of external public images.
- It transforms a lively person into a static image.
- It convinces the person that the number of images that can be taken are limitless—thousands after thousands. It’s routine to take selfies. Go ahead, take as many as you want. Everybody does.
- It is addictive. One can get hooked on it.
- It teaches narcissism.
- The person may find later that her real self—the unique self she knows herself to be—is missing in all of the images taken of her.even the ones taken by herself. Great pictures. You may think I look great, but that’s not me. Appearance is not reality.
- It downplays the value of internal experience and a private sense of self.
- It introduces an obligation to share images with people you don’t really know and who don’t know you. This is done under the bizarre claim that acquaintances held at alms length on the streets make swell bosom friends on a computer. They don’t. They are pixels on a screen, pseudo-event friends.
- It collapses geologic space into nonexistence. The viewer is anywhere, say in China, and the selfie taker is in New York. They are nowhere together in the same virtual space.
- It collapses actual time into simultaneity. The picture shows up in China within seconds of it’s shooting in New York. It’s virtually timeless.
- it creates a passive, pseudo world where participants spin weavings and webs endlessly on line while each is home alone at the computer.
The smart phone and “selfie” are great, we tell ourselves, and they really are, but when we highlight their virtues the obvious is overlooked: they are unfriendly to personal identity. A person would be wise to look for an integrated and positive sense of self though other methods and means.
For those looking for additional reading, I recommend Jacob Weinberg’s We Are Hopelessly Hooked, in the New York Review of Books, (February 25, 2016): 6-9. In it Weinberg reviews four books whose titles clearly convey their authors’s concerns. Two are by Sherry Turkle: Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penquin); and, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books). The others are Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, by Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. (MIT Press), and Hooked: How to Build Habit Building Products, by Nir Eval with Ryan Hoover (Portfolio).
Will Callender, Jr. ©
April 12, 2016
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good