Seduced by Selfies

All the different analyses and explanations going around Facebook just don’t help. Is it politics or economics? Is it cultural or historical? Was it the failure of the left or the product of the right? Move to Canada or stay and fight? None of it helps. It all just adds to the confusion.

It’s disorienting. Each piece makes sense, but seems partial, somehow incomplete. I nod along as I’m reading, but when I get to the end, I keep asking myself what is really real? What’s the so what?

Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem at the same level of understanding that created it. But here we are, still trapped at the same level of thinking that has created all the problems in the first place.

We look at it from hundreds of different angles, but all from the same lens. It’s like basing a research project on nothing but selfies. You could learn a lot; what they feature, the ways they pose, the faces they make, the people they emulate. You could learn a lot, that is, about the illusions people try to create for themselves.

But you would also miss a lot. For a start: context, history, and consequence.

Here’s a thought experiment: how well would we understand you as a person if we only looked at the cellular level? There is no homunculus “you” in there among all the cells with your hopes and fears. Nor are you a concept at that level. The cells aren’t working to create you or achieve you. They don’t self-identify as part of you or believe in you. They are just doing their thing — gathering oxygen, pulsing when they get a chemical cue, dividing and dying all on their own time and with their own agenda. No amount of research into the demographics or attitudes of the cells would tell us anything at all about your preferences or intentions. You somehow just emerge almost as an afterthought from the cellular hum.

We are making the same mistake now, searching for the causes and solutions to our current problem but looking through the wrong lens, looking at the wrong level. Our focus on the intentional individual illuminates a mesmerizing aspect of reality, but it’s a dangerously limited view. It leaves out the cognitive distortions that warp our perceptions and the role of unintended consequences. It can’t see how multi-layered systems create butterfly effects or hear the echos of generations.

We have been seduced by the selfie worldview; converted from citizens with responsibilities to consumers with demands. We have bought into the easy lie of 30 seconds of perfection detached from consequence. Life used to imitate art, now it imitates commercials.

If we are going to find our way through the current crisis, we must stop this relentless obsession with selfies — the posed, filtered images of the reality we fantasize about — and start to connect the dots. We need to start noticing the juxtapositions and contradictions; the impact not just the intentions. We need to enlarge the view, and see not only the polished images, but also the studio set and all the trappings and tricks required to create the illusions.

But this is easier said than done. When you start connecting the dots, you start to see all the ugliness that we have ignored in our pursuit of the perfect selfie. You see all the stressed out people and anti-depressant sales; the obesity and eating disorders side-by-side. You see all the farms turned into parking lots and ticky-tack houses. You see the ugliness of Reality TV and road rage; of landfills and ranks of u-store bunkers to warehouse the crap we didn’t need in the first place.

Of course, the irony is that we thought we were doing it to be happy. But just look where we are. The billionaire class has screwed over the planet, the rest of us, and each other because they thought wealth and power would somehow take care of that hollowness inside: retail therapy taken to its absurd conclusion. They compete to build the biggest mansions with rooms they’ll never use. They obsess about their ranking on the Forbes 500 and lie about their worth like other men lie about their penis sizes. They run the economy like a gambler trying to outrun a loosing streak, always on the brink of collapse, always trying to work an angle and hope for a miracle.

It doesn’t take a trained therapist to see that their attempts to avoid the hollowness only grows it. Like an addict, compelled to use more and more to dig out of the crash that the last hit created, it spirals out of control, until now their unhappiness has grown so virulent they are desperate to spread it to the whole world.

And that’s when the tragedy hits. As soon as you connect the dots, you realize we are their enablers. All of us. Left, right, and center. The minute you see the ugliness, you realize you’ve seen it all along. We were just willing to ignore it. Willing to justify the iPhone made with slave labour because, after all, they’re probably all made that way, and gee, you gotta have a phone, right? Worrying more about winning the argument than understanding a different point of view. Feeling a little smug about our canvas shopping bags and low-flow shower heads, while driving our SUVs to the store to buy more stuff we don’t need.

There is so much anger flying around at the moment. Everyone is looking for someone to blame, some evil genius to destroy. The real tragedy is that there are no comic book villains, just us. Just us, all bungling around with the best of intentions but never taking the time to really make the connections — not in any real way. We shake our fists at the one percent and how they were willing to sell the rest of us down the river for a bunch of gaudy junk they don’t need, but forget we are the one percent to the rest of the world, guilty of the same short-sighted choices. We just kept bopping along doing our stuff — gathering our paychecks, reacting whenever provoked, living our lives never really thinking about the consequences; never connecting the dots. We had the best of intentions and noble values, but we died a little bit at a time, compromising those values for convenience and comfort. We never considered that what we see as cancer, cells just see as growth.

It wasn’t that the other lenses weren’t available; we just didn’t take them seriously. We ignored the collective wisdom of our ancestors who warned about sloth and craving; who taught humility and simplicity; who told us not to turn away from the leper or the suffering of others. We thought that was all a bit old-fashioned. We were somehow different. Technology and an efficient distribution system changed all that.

Sure, there were people who were willing to con us along the way to get a little richer, but like they say, you can’t con an honest man. We wanted to be conned, so we went along with it.

And now scientific research on happiness is confirming what all the great wisdom traditions and all but the most crackpot philosophies have been saying for millennia. We are happier giving than receiving. We are happier when we live in communities where everyone is provided for. Our happiness grows when we take the time to be grateful for what we already have and shrinks when we obsess about how much more we could have. Strong relationships, time in nature, physical effort, connecting with something bigger than us, petting dogs, striving for an ideal, playing with children all make us happier.

Stuff doesn’t.

It’s not rocket science, and yet it seems like we have to learn these lessons again and again.

As my niece and her friends are fond of saying: look at your life; look at your choices. In these scary times, it’s so easy to point to all the bad guys out there and plot ways to foil their dastardly plans. But how are you complicit? How are you fueling the very problems you decry? How hard are you working to make and keep yourself unhappy?

The good news is we don’t need someone to save us. The system isn’t going to chase us down. We are the system. It is our collective energy that is fueling it; our collective choices that determine how things develop. But we have to start seeing beyond good intentions and high sounding beliefs. We have to see the actual consequences of our choices and then be willing to make different choices. And doing that requires a lot more courage and strength than fighting an imaginary super-villain.

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