Summertime in the Age of the Selfie

Posted: Aug 04, 2017 12:01 AM
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"Summertime/ and the livin' is easy." George Gershwin's haunting melody and DuBose Heyward's tender lyrics once floated over the mood of summer, coaxing us all to reverie. But that was when vacationers lay on the beach under a lazy old sun, concentrating on important things, like grains of sand seeping through their toes, and watching the currents of salty waves ebb and flow before rippling back to the vast deep.

We luxuriated in those summers past; we left the cacophony of the city and the urgencies of work and school behind.

But such idealistic escapes, even if only partially accurate, are gone with the smartphone. I've been watching people at play from a beach blanket on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Instead of tossing a beach ball or jumping over the waves, the kids are mesmerized by digital toys; the grown-ups check their texts and email for the 10th time that day; and everybody is taking selfies.

The selfie, that personal portrait clicked from a dozen angles, captures the heat of a moment, whether of personal significance or not, and is dispatched over thousands of miles in an instant. Few of us put script on paper or cards for friends and loved ones. The letters I exchanged with my daughter while she was at camp and college, which we laugh and reminisce over today, are relics of an antiquated means of communication as dead as the telegram or a conversation via a landline.

In the digital world where most of us live, detailed thoughts are reduced to acronyms on texts -- "lol" (laugh out loud) or "smh" (shake my head). It's not all bad, of course, and instant communication has its rewards. But some of the reliance on fast messaging keeps at bay the slower, deeper insights and perceptions. Biographers complain that the reservoir of the written word is swiftly drying up on the shores of the electronic world, where Snapchats evaporate in 10 seconds and tweets disappear with the ease of a finger sliding up and down a tiny screen.

The intellectual process for insight and observation may be changing, too. We increasingly rely on the instant digital exchange to excite the senses, whether personal or political. (Let's keep President Trump out of this for the moment.)

Just 20 years ago, Neal Gabler wrote a book called "Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality." His point was that we have become both entertainer and audience in life's dramas, as the nervous system requires the excitement of different kinds of performances played for the self and others. Written before the ubiquity of the internet, Gabler's points of reference were movies and television, demonstrating how the media began to reduce distinctions separating art, entertainment and news. Instead of art imitating life, life began to imitate art -- even pop art. Objects of everyday life, including people who were merely famous for being famous, were magnified to an importance they were never meant to have.

Even before the internet, where online amateurs become self-made pundits and attract an audience with nothing particular to say, showbiz techniques became the means and measurement for the presentation of professional news of politics, which satisfied an audience and raised ratings.

It was a short step from there to reality television, which makes real life an even larger (and cheaper) focus of amusement. Fictional narratives were designed to inspire pity and fear, with the understanding that "there but for the grace of God go I." Reality television, like home videos, is life itself. Watching someone slip on a banana peel or be told "You're fired!" actually delivers real pain -- just not ours. It's pain that doesn't touch us. We can laugh or be surprised without feeling empathy. Pity and fear are replaced by spectacle for the sake of entertainment.

Social critics point out how distraction has become more important than insight. Columnists who follow readers' comments at the end of their work online are surprised by how readers are quickly distracted from the words at hand and begin arguing with and insulting each other.

Neil Postman, the media critic who wrote the 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," foresaw danger when he wrote that "facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation." He feared Aldous Huxley's future described in "Brave New World," where people come "to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

It's easy to attack Trump's personas as created in reality television without considering the responsibility of those who create them -- those who select and sell distraction instead of serious news. With every revolutionary technology there is hope that it will be harnessed to make the world a better place. But that requires the long view, and we're not there yet. It's summertime, and the selfie is easy.