I find it funny that I sometimes ask, “Who gave these people a camera?” I actually seem to ask that of nearly everyone on the planet today, and especially those on Facebook and Instagram. I remember a time when pictures meant something and people invested time in setting up shots. I’m not advocating we go back to the old flash pot explosions and the hour long exposure time of yesteryear.We don’t need to bring back the daguerreotypes to appreciate pictures again. (Although, I have no doubt hipsters would love that! Ha!
Nowadays, every idiot has a camera phone, and somewhere along the way, that person was led to believe that 104 of the same selfie was a good idea – replete with sucked in cheeks, duck lips, reflection in the bathroom mirror, and from above with gratuitous cleavage. That’s 104 to add to the 4238 on Facebook already. All of the same thing. Or the filters of dog’s tongues and whiskers that Snapchat allows you to do to your photos. There’s no such thing as scenery anymore. Landscapes have been usurped by the far more interesting…US. You can’t properly tag a mountain after all. And thanks to Instagram, we’re all graphic designers, carefully trained in blurring the edges or adding a sepia tone to that shot from last night’s club. We have become a nation of self-professed photographers and self-pomoters, while we somehow devalue the serious artists who have been trained and spent years working in the field. I’m not saying that in order to own a camera, everyone should have to go through formal photography training. Camera phones have democratized the pastime, and if anything, it’s encouraged a whole new generation to pursue a career in the field or become more serious about their art.
And what’s wrong with everyone being an amateur photographer? That’s like discouraging people from doing community theater, even though they may be bad actors and the shows are likely terrible. Even if it doesn’t cultivate a love of the theater that leads to a career, those people are having fun and doing something they love and enjoy. What’s wrong with that? We need to allow people to have their pleasures and actively pursue whatever interests them. Life is cruel and unpredictable in so many ways, so why should anyone deprive themselves of a pastime, however poorly I may think they are at it? And why am I – or anyone else – the arbiter of taste?
In truth, my frustration and blame does lie with the ubiquity of cameras and the staggering explosion of amateur photography, but with the deeper and more insidious effect those realities may be having on our collective psyches. The information age has irreversibly imprinted itself on every aspect of our lives. Unfettered access to high speed internet has changed the way we interact with the world around us. Since everything’s faster online, we were forced to speed up the pace of our lives. Since the internet allowed us to access unprecedented amounts of raw data, seemingly everything was at our fingertips. And certainly at the snap of them. Such instantaneous data retrieval undoubtedly made our lives easier, but it also bred unflattering new behaviors in us. We were now spoiled by access and ease, and we demanded our computers get faster, our connections got speedier, and websites be designed for maximum efficiency.
Our prayers were ultimately answered, but at what expense? We now anthropomorphize the internet, and see ourselves in its functions and maneuvers. Conversely, we began to assign computer traits to those we loved, the people we worked with, and the people that served us in some way. We were not only driving ourselves even faster, but we held those around us to unrealistic standards of success. Our bartenders had to be skilled in small talk, tend bar quickly and efficiently, possess encyclopedic knowledge of mixing drinks, and flawlessly craft the perfect martini. Why? Because the internet can do all those things in a fraction of the time. Metaphorically, if nothing else. Our colleagues at work must draft blueprints with expert precision. The Priest must deliver the sermon you’re meant to hear and grow from. Your husband promised your anniversary would be exciting and romantic in ways it never has been. Your best friend better not invite that girl he’s dating, because you don’t like her, no matter how happy he may think he is. This is your special night, and if he’s truly a friend, then he’ll know better. You’d be hard-pressed to make it in this world without the help and support of others. Some of those people are going to be the rock and foundation you plant your feet on. They are steadfast and true, and worthy of your trust. The reality is, the majority of people you meet in life are going to be apathetic to your existence, and take no active interest in your life—however nice and/or exciting you may be. A small portion of people jump from the don’t care list, to the mildly interested and just enough to make modest efforts at connection. These people are often referred to as acquaintances, and they make up the lion’s share of your friends on Facebook, and likely every other social networking site. They may only make contact once a year – to wish you a happy birthday, but then again, they may not even do that. These are liminal friends, waiting on the doorstep, but not entering your home. We look at our friends list, and boast that we have over a thousand friends. But honestly, how many of them would attend your mother’s funeral? Loan you money? Donate to your GoFundMe campaign? Or go beyond wishing you a happy birthday, and actually buy yo a gift? When you count your friends in quality, as opposed to quantity, the numbers dwindle to less than a dozen.
With cameras at our fingertips, we seem to capture every moment of our lives, but never truly live them. How present are we in a transitory moment in time, when we’re too busy setting up the shot and trying to capture beauty that we only can enjoy through a screen? Not to mention the thousands of people who die while trying to capture the “perfect” shot. We live our fast-paced lives at the speed of the Internet, and then when we have genuine moments to reflect and take in nature’s beauty, we feel the need to immortalize the moment in a picture. As if we have no faith in our memories and our “mind’s eye” as Shakespeare coined in Hamlet. Even the expression, “Pics, or it didn’t happen” perfectly encapsulates the mentality of a society so obsessed with images and capturing every moment of our lives – like collecting ships in bottles for our future selves and for posterity.
We use social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram because we want to chronicle our lives, as if they didn’t matter or had no substance if they aren’t documented online. We use pictures to help us create a narrative of how we want our lives perceived by others. We curate our lives, so as to choose the perfect selfie, the ideal family portrait, and the most picturesque holiday photo to tell a story we want others to hear. We rarely talk about our bad days, and when we do, we rarely get likes. Perhaps some virtual hugs from time to time.
They say that a post with an image is 75% more likely to get comments and likes than one with just pure text. Instagram is so popular because it doesn’t allow its users to write much, and never in the body of the post…always as a comment underneath. IG is a visual medium, and it’s wonderful for photographers and artists, because it allows them to showcase their art and network within a vast community of consumers.
Lately, it seems that Facebook is becoming more like Instagram, and turning into a depository of pictures, memes, videos, and occasionally articles. It’s rare to see people write anything anymore, and when they do, it’s almost always short and to the point. When I write a long and thoughtful post, I’m lucky to get three likes. There have been times when I’ve posted a verbose story and not gotten a single like. My friend, Jeremiah, often tells long and entertaining stories connecting history to his personal life, and weaving contemporary society into events from the past. He’s lucky to get ten likes, and he has over 3000 “friends!” No one wants to read anymore. I absolutely detest the notation: TL/DR. Too long, didn’t read means that you’re too lazy and/ or don’t have the attention span to digest anything longer than a three sentence Facebook status. As a society, we have been moving away from books for decades. We no longer want to read anything of length, so we warn others if an article or essay is too long by slapping ‘TL/DR’ on there. Sometimes, some brave soul will read an entire article and write TL/DR and then provide a cursory summary of what the essay was about. As if an eight sentence summary can capture the voice, the art, and the wordplay of a well-written essay. We have lost our ability to pay attention, and I cannot help but blame television, the Internet, and the technology sitting in all our pockets right now.
Having said all this, I am just as guilty as the next guy. I take tons of photos and post them on Facebook and Instagram every day. I see a thing of beauty like a sunset, and rather than take it in and reflect on the moment, I pull out my camera to capture it. I chronicle my life through carefully curated pictures, and always try to show my best side. I often write comments that demonstrate how liberal and open-minded I am. I post articles that show how egalitarian and non-racist I really am. My articles, posts, and pictures all tell the story of a progressive and tolerant citizen of this world, who strongly believes in social justice, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, equality, and more. And those are all genuinely held believes that I have. But they don’t tell the whole picture.
The truth is rarely black and white. We live in a time that has become so divided and polarized that if you don’t tow the line of your party’s orthodoxy, you are somehow an enemy of the cause. The expression, “You’re either with us or against us” has never been so true as it is today. People rarely see in shades of grey today, and rarely embrace the nuance and contradictions inherent in human nature. I can support Black Lives Matter AND still recognize that many of the victims of police brutality were committing a crime when they were assaulted and/ or killed. That doesn’t take away the impact of their murders. It just doesn’t lionize them as victims or demonize the police as pure evil. The truth is almost somewhere in the middle between these divergent narratives. To praise a man like Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, or even Abraham Lincoln doesn’t mean you cannot accept and process their flaws and shortcomings. TR was an imperialist and bigoted brute in his younger days. Jefferson had the audacity to write “All men are created equal” while owning slaves and believing in their innate inferiority. Lincoln initially wanted to preserve the union more than outlaw slavery, and for many modern critics, was too slow to embrace abolitionism. What we fail to do when we put these men (and women) in boxes, is embrace their multitudes, as Walt Whitman once said. We don’t allow them their complexities or peccadillos, as we either paint them as Gods or Monsters. Human beings are complicated specimens, and rarely – if ever – fall into one convenient box. We are neither all evil or all bad. Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” And that’s true. We assign blame and strip humans of their nuances and layers when we try to distill their personalities down into cookie-cutter categories.
Another problem with lionizing or demonizing figures from history is that it divorces them of their times, and we fail to provide cultural context. Teddy Roosevelt’s early attitudes towards Native Americans in the late 19th Century was abhorrent, but hardly unusual for the time. And that attitude changed and improved over his lifetime, as he grew and matured. What WAS unusual for his time period was his progressive politics. In the 1912 United States Presidential Election, Roosevelt ran under his own third party – the Bull Moose Party. Despite the limitations of his time, his party’s platform called for suffrage for women, universal healthcare, a protection of federal lands, a livable wage, free education, and many more of the same things we are still fighting for today! Bernie Sanders essentially ran on the platform proposed by TR over a hundred years ago!
And yet, we have many liberals who want to cancel Teddy. And Jefferson. And astonishingly, even Abraham Lincoln. Statues have been removed, and schools renamed. At what cost? Who will be next? Who will be left? Even Martin Luther King was an unrepentant womanizer. Shall we cancel him next? If we have no figures from our past to look up to, how will we learn from their successes and failures? Isn’t it more educational to learn the full complexity of a man in order to understand that kind of nuance and depth within ourselves? We cancel our forefathers/mothers at our peril. If we have no giants to stand on the shoulders of, how will we ever see past ourselves and our own shortcomings?
As I wrote in my essay on cancel culture, we risk losing our very soul as a nation if we continue to throw our ancestors under the bus and refuse to place them in the context of the time periods they came from. We need to stop making those that came before us or our own contemporaries into “heroes” or “villains.” Humankind is too smart to be doing that. We have come too far, to backslide into such adolescent behavior.
Our technology has sped up our lives, but has it improved them? We can capture a sunset in seconds, but can we even take the time to enjoy it? We refuse to read anything of length and substance, but rather choose to watch 30 second clips on Tik Tok. Our attention spans have been irrefutably altered by the media and our technology, and its creating a society full of people suffering from severe ADD and the inability to focus on anything textured or profound. What happens when everything becomes so superficial, and we are so entrenched in our divided camps that we refuse to even talk with our opponents? If a picture is worth a thousand words, the portrait of America right now is not pretty to look at. We need more grey in that picture!