This morning I noticed that a hydro box across from the East City restaurant where I meet my father for breakfast every Sunday had been spray-painted. Large, blue, drippy letters screamed: MAX. I don’t know Max but he certainly wants us to know him, or at least, know of him. Maybe Max is the kid on the corner with the hair, clothes, and piercings that beg to be noticed or the quiet kid in the back of the class or maybe even the ambitious young man slaving away in the cubicle that the boss never seems to visit.
Max’s urge is ancient. We have always wanted to immortalize ourselves. In the Second World War, the first American soldiers to arrive anywhere drew on buildings, bridges, and abandoned vehicles a rough figure of a man looking over a wall with the caption, “Kilroy Was Here.” At the Potsdam conference where postwar Europe was planned, Americans built a special washroom for Stalin, Truman, and Churchill. Stalin was the first to use it and upon returning asked, “Who is Kilroy?”
Most of us want something more personal. Hospitals, schools, galleries, and more boast names on brass plaques and atop buildings so we know who donated the cash to construct them. The philanthropy is good but the naming instructive. The urge’s obscene extreme lies in Donald Trump’s outlandish monuments to himself, each with his name glaringly displayed.
Are Trump and the philanthropists merely peacetime Kilroys or Max with money? Is publicly recording our name a primal or spiritual desire to make sense of our brief lives through recognition and remembrance?
Maybe it’s the same urge that leads to our wanting pictures of ourselves. Consider our walls and old-fashioned photo albums, rich with family pictures of good times and travels. But these are private records, unlike Greek and Roman emperors who posed for statues and Renaissance Lords for paintings as public demonstrations of wealth and power. They were slow-motioned selfies.
In 1839, Philadelphia’s Robert Cornelius set up his camera, rushed before it, and created the world’s first photographic selfie. Selfies were encouraged in 2009 when Facebook asked for profile pictures and democratized in 2010 when Apple’s I-Phone 4 produced the first forward-facing camera. Private became public. Diary entries formerly protected by tiny locks were suddenly blasted through global megaphones.
In January 2015, Psychology Today summarized studies concluding that those who take and post lots of selfies are narcissistic and guilty of self-objectification. That is, in an apparent contradiction, they have an inflated view of their self worth while simultaneously associating that worth with their physical appearance. American doctors noted a startling number of young people asking to be surgically altered for the sole reason of looking better in selfies. Another study suggested that those who post a lot of selfies may not be narcissistic or self-objective when they begin, but repeatedly posting the images turns them that way.
Numerous studies have concluded that while harming ourselves we are also tearing society’s fabric which is based on humility and mutual accommodation. Too many of us have become more concerned with reporting on our lives than living them. We rob ourselves of fully enjoying an experience by stepping outside of special moments to instead fashion images of us appearing to have fun. We have become more concerned with online followers and “friends” than real friends, often turning away from real friends to interact with faux online ones. As a comedian once observed, “Do you want to test your online friend list? Post that you’re moving on Saturday and see whose there to help lift your fridge.”
We’ll survive. The teenage girls now duck-facing and gape-mouth smiling into their cameras will grow up and so will Max. Plus, like always, as soon as enough adults start posting selfies, it will cease to be cool and kids will move on. But we will adopt whatever new technology allows us to deal with the old urge some feel to scream “We are Here!” as did the Whos to Horton. Meanwhile, according to psychologists, the happiest among us will spend less time recording our lives or caring about people we barely know in order to more fully enjoy those lives and the ones we love.
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