When the press refers to “Generation Selfie,” do we sense a sneer? It’s almost as if the term selfie is shorthand not for self-portrait but for self-involved, self-absorbed, or simply selfish.
Selfies are widespread among millennials, many of whom grew up with camera phones. A poll commissioned by electronics maker Samsung reveals that fully 30 percent of all photos taken by 18- to 24-year-olds are selfies. For many of us, the selfie is just the new normal, whether or not we fill our own smartphones with self-regarding snapshots. But, as Pamela Rutledge writes for Psychology Today, some see the selfie generation “as proof of cultural — or at least generational — narcissism and moral decline.” And calling Generation Selfie a bunch of narcissists may not be rhetorical excess: according to a paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, selfie-posting behavior is indeed associated with narcissistic personality disorder.
Does this mean that modern society is growing more self-obsessed?
Belief in the “moral decay” epitomized by self-directed amateur photography results from a more general conviction that the virtues of community and altruism are being driven out by our culture’s overemphasis on the individual. Whether the culprit is capitalism, technology, or Western civilization more generally, the idea is that historically recent developments are fracturing our communal bonds and leading to a loss of empathy, compassion, and duty — replacing concern for the well-being of a larger group with a privileging of the atomized individual.
Inventing the Modern Self
But the development is not, in fact, historically recent. The selfie as we now know it may seem like a result of social media and the camera phone, but our society’s apparent obsession with visual self-presentation is much older — and significantly more beneficial — than the critics understand.
“It’s easy to make fun of our penchant for taking selfies,” writes popular science author Steven Johnson in How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, “but in fact there is a long and storied tradition behind that form of self-expression.”
The original selfie generation emerged in Renaissance Italy, the product of a different technological innovation. Centuries before the bidirectional camera phone, there was the culturally disruptive technology of the glass mirror.
“The interesting thing about self-portraiture,” Johnson tells us, “is that it effectively doesn’t exist as an artistic convention in Europe before 1400.” That’s because, for most of human history, we got very few chances to see ourselves as others see us. The best we could do was a rippled reflection glimpsed in water or a tarnished image on a metal pot.
That all changed when glassmakers “figured out a way to combine their crystal-clear glass with a new innovation in metallurgy, coating the back of the glass with an amalgam of tin and mercury to create a shiny and highly reflective surface. For the first time, mirrors became part of the fabric of everyday life.”
One result was the invention of linear perspective in painting. Prior to the Renaissance, visual representation was more symbolic, less what we would now call realistic. Renaissance artists used the new technology of the mirror to compare what they put on the canvas with what they saw framed in the glass. Sometimes, of course, what they saw in the looking glass was their own reflection.
“The mirror helped invent the modern self,” Johnson writes, “in some real but unquantifiable way.”
Soon after, “social conventions as well as property rights and other legal customs began to revolve around the individual rather than the older, more collective units: the family, the tribe, the city, the kingdom.” Furthermore, “orienting laws around individuals led directly to an entire tradition of human rights and the prominence of individual liberty in legal codes.”
In a different investigation of the individualist tradition, historian Lynn Hunt observes in her book Inventing Human Rights, “For rights to be human rights, all humans everywhere in the world must possess them equally and only because of their status as human beings.”
There was no such understanding of humanity for most of history. Love, compassion, and sympathy may have existed from the beginning, but only between people in narrowly defined groups. The treatment for outsiders was far more harsh.
Slavery and torture, today considered egregious violations of human rights, went unquestioned before a few hundred years ago. Since at least the time of Aristotle, it was typical to divide the world between “us,” the naturally civilized, and “them,” the naturally enslaved. Torture, in the ancient world, was originally limited to slaves, but over time, the practice became more acceptable, and in the second century it was expanded to include nominally free lower-class victims. By the Middle Ages, torture before execution had become a form of spectacle, public entertainment for the whole family.
How, then, did we develop a sense of universal humanity and of natural rights for all human beings? Specifically, Hunt asks about the Enlightenment thinkers in 18th-century France and America, for whom such rights were “self-evident.”
How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seemingly natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?
And how did the 18th-century public come to agree with them? The answer Hunt offers is that the so-called self-evidence of individual human rights was largely the result of widespread reading in a genre that was still relatively new at the time: the epistolary novel. Enlightenment thinkers were familiar with first-person narrative in a way that earlier generations would have found alien. Novels introduced readers to the inner lives of characters unlike themselves.
Johnson, too, talks about the emergence of the novel and its impact on the moral imagination, but he traces the origins of the modern novel itself to the same innovation that gave rise to linear perspective in painting: “The psychological novel … is the kind of story you start wanting to hear once you begin spending meaningful hours of your life staring at yourself in the mirror.”
Thinking about themselves as the individuals staring back through the glass, “people began writing about their interior lives with far more scrutiny,” and “the novel emerged as a dominant form of storytelling, probing the inner mental lives of its characters with an unrivaled depth.”
The Innovation of Empathy
What does this sort of growing self-obsession have to do with the rights of others?
Empathy, Hunt points out, “requires a leap of faith, of imagining that someone else is like you.” This is the idea that “novels generated … by inducing new sensations about the inner self.”
Or as Johnson puts it,
Entering a novel, particularly a first-person narrative, was a kind of conceptual parlor trick: it let you swim through the consciousness, the thoughts and emotions, of other people more effectively than any aesthetic form yet invented.
Spending time in someone else’s head, even if that someone else is fictional, is practice for thinking about real people’s experiences.
So, according to this story, the technology of glass mirrors leads to linear perspective, the Renaissance, and a new literary form called the novel. The novel, in turn, transforms the popular imagination in such a way that even strangers — those outside your immediate family, class, and religious affiliation — come to be understood as autonomous individuals with their own inner lives, much like your own. And for the first time in history, people come to question the practices of torture and slavery, practices at least as old as civilization and far more universal than any understanding of rights prior to the Enlightenment.
The “invention” of the individual ushered in not ever more selfishness and less regard for the group, but an expanding empathy and a more inclusive, approaching universal, sense of “us” — a waning relegation of those outside our moral community.
Trading with the Other
Johnson notes that the technological innovation at the beginning of the story isn’t enough by itself to have produced the larger cultural shift:
The Renaissance also benefited from a patronage system that enabled its artists and scientists to spend their days playing with mirrors instead of, say, foraging for nuts and berries. A Renaissance without the Medici — not the individual family, of course, but the economic class they represent — is as hard to imagine as the Renaissance without the mirror.
The same can be said about the economy that produced the Enlightenment: it is hard to imagine an era of growing empathy, open-mindedness, and belief in universal rights without the market that provided a growing readership for the epistolary novel.
Capitalism establishes the conditions in which individualism can thrive. Individualism, in turn, helps the market economy to grow and to propagate the belief in rights-bearing individuals.
Contrary to today’s critics, then, who assume that the individualist mentality leads to the absence of empathy, with the advent of individualism came the invention of empathy, at least as applied to those outside the tribe, clan, or caste.
Maybe narcissists do feel compelled to photograph themselves. Camera phones make it easier than ever. But the myth of Narcissus is ancient. And the history of reflective technology points us to a different understanding of cause and effect for the selfie generation.
The 21st-century self-portrait can play the same role now as its earlier incarnations did during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Like individualism more generally, the selfie invites us to explore questions of identity and of where we fit in an ever more interconnected community.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.