A wonderful thing happened a few months ago. I dropped my phone.
Of course, I didn’t know how wonderful a thing it was at first. Quite the opposite, actually. My face was as cracked as my phone when I picked it up from the sidewalk to discover a fresh cobweb blooming from the bottom corner of the screen. “[Expletive],” I believe was my statement at the time.
My phone was and is busted, but the clearer picture of what actually took place when I dropped my phone took some time to develop, like an unshaken Polaroid. One of the deepest cracks in the touchscreen cut straight across the front-facing camera. The view through this lens was irreparably askew, the glass scattering light in blurry plumes that blanked out the background of every shot. Thus, attempted selfies come out somewhere between lightly abstract and heavily concussed.
As such, and because of an anaphylactic reaction I have when exposed to Apple Stores for more than three minutes, I’ve found myself stuck for weeks with no way to establish my physical presence in front of things. And I have to say, apart from the microscopic cuts all over my fingertips, it’s been pretty fantastic.
Something happens to your relationship with a camera when you can’t effectively point it at yourself — it becomes a camera again. And the world becomes something you see, not something you see yourself in.
For the last decade, through the increasing sophistication and decreasing size of the cameras we carry and the connectivity of those cameras to the content mills of social media, the primary function of our cameras is no longer to quietly document that stunning view of the canyon for posterity. If anything, it’s to amplify our presence there to anyone in eyeshot — it’s more like shouting “CHECK ME OUT, CANYON!” into the canyon. (That’s a far cry from Ansel Adams.)
It’s a shift that has given rise to an entire economy, founded upon the unstable currency of the self. Instagram is flooded with hundreds of thousands of selfies from proliferating “selfie factories” like 29 Rooms and the Museum of Ice Cream, where guests sign up weeks in advance and pay $38 a pop to snap pics of themselves swimming in pools of pastel sprinkles. And Snap Inc.’s recently launched startup incubator Yellow just slid a hefty chunk of cash and snatched an equity stake in Selfie Circus, a firm that “creates pop-up experiences designed to be documented and shared on social media.”
Like the selfies they inspire, these brightly colored sets and Insta-worthy, otherworldly environments are fleeting. They pop up, they shut down, they luxuriate in their own fantasy, they indulge in their disposability. (No, really, city officials in Miami declared the Museum of Ice Cream and its stray sprinkles an “environmental hazard.”)
But they also cultivate something reckless in how we see ourselves in the world around us — and that goes beyond the millions of dollars in damage done by clumsy selfie-tographers stumbling through actual museums. Habitual selfies train us to believe that no matter where we find ourselves or what sights we see, we will always be the most important part of the picture. Is this messing us up?
Of course it is. Which is why culture’s first responders — vandals — have seemed lately to take a shining to defacing increasingly sacred selfie spots, the latest being the iconic pink wall of the Paul Smith boutique in Los Angeles, emblazoned this past week with a sloppy yet succinct directive: “GO [Expletive] UR SELFIE.” (And if you guessed the vandalism only made it that much more tantalizing to selfie-snappers, you’d be correct.)
One of the side effects of no longer being able to snap a selfie whenever a situation appears to demand it is that you’re forced to question why you wanted the selfie in the first place. And the fewer selfies I take, the stranger the practice seems. It seems innocuous enough to grab a blurry pic of a wild night out to send as a reminder to hungover friends the next morning, or to hang onto that moment with Mom, or to show your husband how badly the barber butchered you.
But with more and more reports of people snapping smiling selfies on top of dead whales, or in front of seriously injured or homeless people, or next to car crashes, or inside of concentration camps, I have to wonder about the impulse that inspires us to treat the world around us like a backdrop, to treat our participation in it like a pose, and to block our own view of what’s before our eyes.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.