Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

How #Selfie Culture is Changing Our Lives


We’ve all done it: We’re at an event, we take a bunch of photos with our phones, we take a selfie and maybe one with a friend, we post all the images online, and we’re done.

Done with what? Well, documenting that moment in our lives. That way everyone knows what we did. And we can remember what we did. Convenient? Yes. But is it also a crutch? So much of a crutch that we start to rely on the documentation to actually remember what we saw? And so much of a habit that we start to alter what “living a life” actually is?

As people spend increasing amounts of time and energy documenting their lives, they are edging closer to a bizarre reality that sprung up several decades ago, when individuals such as Gordon Bell, Steven Mann and others began wearing backpacks full of batteries and crude digital cameras, taking images of whatever was in front of them every five or 10 minutes, all day long. Cyborgs, we called them, obsessed with “life-logging.” But now that a small phone has replaced that gear, it’s easy for all of us to become cyborgs.

I asked Sherry Turkle for some insight into whether our habit of documenting could affect our lives and our memories. Turkle is a sociologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies how people interact with technology and how that affects human relationships. I recently interviewed her for a longer article on the implications of our increasingly networked lives. She has interviewed, at length, hundreds of individuals of all ages about their interactions with smartphones, tablets, social media, avatars and robots—and she says these interactions are becoming so prevalent that they threaten to undermine some basic human strengths we need to thrive. In the exchange below, Turkle explains her concerns and questions.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

A strange notion that arises is that if we’re living to document our lives, then the documenting becomes the reason for living. It’s easy to do now with technology, especially something like Google Glass.

I've interviewed enough people who are wearing Google Glass and taking a photograph every minute, every five minutes. Other people are constantly stopping to take selfies. The pause to document becomes part of the living of a life.

But does the pursuit become the purpose? "I document, therefore I am.”

Yes. "I document, therefore I am.” “I post, therefore I am.” We do it because it's so seductive. I just interviewed a divorced dad who was so excited to be going on a field trip with his daughter. Basically, he spent the beginning of it taking photographs and uploading the photographs to send to people. It wasn't until an hour into the trip that he realized he hadn't spoken to his daughter. It was a very moving moment in my interview with him, when he muttered, "I hadn't said anything to her." She had started to object; he was actually stopped by her objections. I don’t think this situation is a one-off. We do that to each other quite a bit.

Is there any long-term value in documenting so thoroughly?

Well, we can’t answer that for everyone. But what I find often characterizes these cases is that the people don’t look at the pictures. When I met Gordon Bell years ago, who was so committed to this, what he really wanted to show me were the blueprints from his M.I.T. dissertation, and his beautiful Japanese notebooks—everything that wasn’t digital. There was a sense that the meaningful things in his life were not the digitized coffee mug that somehow we could search for.

Maybe there’s no harm to this preoccupation—other than the privacy issues, that he's capturing everybody and everybody's extramarital affairs and everybody's nose being picked. I think making this the norm is something we should talk about more than we are. Why is it necessary? For what purpose?

What about effects on memory? Isn't part of memory's purpose to craft a cohesive narrative of your life? The building of memories helps make sense of what happens to us.

That's what I am interested in trying to learn. I'd be very interested in teaming up with psychologists who study how much you remember right after an event, if you've been wearing Google Glass versus if you're just relying on your memory. Because Google Glass allows you to defer to another day, do you stop paying attention? And does that undermine your memory? I don't think we know that yet. To me there's a question of: Are you curating or are you evacuating? I hear more people saying to me: "It’s one less thing for me to worry about.” The last person I interviewed who wore Google Glass said: "I don't have to worry about my memories anymore; they'll take care of themselves now." And I'm thinking, that is really not the point of an attentive life experience, of being present in the moment. But I don't want to take a position against photography or things that help you remember your life. I don't think there's a simple story to tell here.

Any other concern about “I document, therefore I am?”

I don't know where to draw the line. It's fun to have a camera and it's fun to take pictures. It's not the fact that we have this new affordance where anything can be a picture. It's our vulnerability to what we make of it—if, for example, we use it so that we don't have to be attentive to each other or to the environment.

Is that part of a larger issue?

When people walk down the street and literally don't look up because what's on their phone is so much more compelling, I think: poor world. There’s less of an investment in what the city looks like and what the buildings look like and what the other people look like. You're elsewhere. I think there's a chance that people will say, “You know, I kind of care what the city looks like.” And we'll start to be shocked by the studies that show us not paying attention.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article