(photo by “R4vi” from London, UK, obtained from Wikimedia Commons and used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license)
“Would you like me to take a picture for you?” I asked a group of 20 somethings, who seemed to be struggling to get a picture. I was at the Grand Canyon, snapping photos with my family. “No thanks,” one replied, “we’ve got a selfie stick.”
At every turnout, the magnificent colors and jagged contours of the canyon were a backdrop for people who seemed to be standing, alone or in groups, wielding their telescopic wands with smartphones stuck on the end. It looks goofy to my old fashioned eyes (I still lug a cumbersome DSLR around when I go to places like the Grand Canyon). But I must grant that it is simple and effective. It’s a brilliant invention. I will probably own one at some point.
The selfie stick has exploded in popularity in the past couple years. “Invented” in 2014 (though similar devices date from many years ago), it is now ubiquitous. The selfie is ubiquitous. According to Travel Weekly, 300 million selfies have been uploaded to Instagram as of June 2015. Never has snapping a pic of yourself been easier.
And just like that, one more way of interacting with others is gone. No one needs an outside person to stop and do an act of kindness–“no thank you, we have a selfie stick.”
As a society this may be seen as emblematic of a fundamental problem with our growing addiction to mobile technology: as individuals we are self absorbed (these tools have apparently been dubbed “narcissticks” according to this New York Times editorial), and some would say that we now have a “selfie culture”. Technology has allowed us to become increasingly disengaged from others, even as ironically we are addicted to the facebook posts and Twitter feeds of countless “friends” scattered across the globe. Unless we fight it, our focus is ever drawn down into our devices, into an endless reverberation of our own likes, thoughts, and desires.
By the way, I mean it when I say “we”–I am no cyber saint here. I must cry “mea culpa” as well: I take selfies. I have had dates with my wife in which I can’t resist the urge to get out my iPhone–and that isn’t because she is not lovely and interesting (she is!). My own kids tend to spend most of their vacation days looking at their devices regardless of how breathtaking the scenery around them may be.
If this self absorption is a problem, it is not new. Self-centeredness is a primordial element of the human story (recall the tale of that wretched apple seized by a man who wanted God’s knowledge for himself). The selfie is but a new and more democratic iteration of the time honored self portrait, or the bust, or the thrill of being on-stage. Although, given its intentional impermanence and nonchalance, it might be more accurate to say that the selfie is reminiscent more of “Kilroy was here”, scratched on pixels rather than walls (variants of this sort of thing can be found in antiquity). It is humans saying, “look! I was here! I matter!”
This brings suddenly to my recollection the fallen statue of King Ozymandias, whose decaying selfie was powerfully memorialized by poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
Most of us (fortunately) aren’t tyrants. We know that our selfies are destined for nowhere glorious. Our “friends” will glance past them in a microsecond, or maybe linger long enough to click the “like” button. If really fortunate maybe someone will pause and comment, perhaps just to say, “OMG I was at the Canyon a week ago!” Then they will move on. It will take seconds, not centuries, for the significance of the selfie moment to fade. We know this but can’t resist the urge to keep doing it. It is the way of the self absorbed. It is our way. “Look, I was here. I matter!”
This is why Christians have a story to tell. Have you become a Christian? Have you been adopted into God’s family? If so, you matter, because you have God as an audience. When you become a Christian, your cosmic portrait will never fade. Unlike your snapshot of yourself against the Grand Canyon, you won’t disappear from God’s in-basket in a few minutes. Your name won’t be blotted from the great Book of Life.
But, the next time you are at the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls or wherever, if you see a handsome bearded 40-something with a charming family approach you at a scenic overlook, don’t run. Instead take pity on us and agree to snap our picture. I’ll show you how my clunky DSLR camera works.