Traces of Me: Of Self and Selfies

Julia Margaret Cameron, Portrait of Alice Liddell, 1860's

Julia Margaret Cameron, Portrait of Alice Liddell, 1860’s

When I look at old photographs of people and places long since gone, I often wonder about what they may have been thinking. What was on their mind while they waited to have their image captured? We often think that everyone thought and felt so much differently in our past than we do now. But this is quickly made opaque when reading and viewing the personal writings and histories of these persons. Their humanity shines through and they reveal themselves to be extraordinarily similar to us in regard to our intellectual and emotional lives. Their questions, qualms, and pains are so very much like our own. How interesting that human experience remains consistent over such a large amount of relative time.

I wonder, what manner of harm might be done to our ancestors by the mighty machines with which we document every moment of our modern lives. What connections to their past are we usurping from them? They won’t have those rare glimpses into the humanity of our lives. No, they will instead wade through a sea of binary coded records detailing our lunches, favorite TV programs, and millions of “selfies” that replace the revealing portraits of our past with a flood of the most vapid and banal pieces of self documentation assembled in human history. Our journals and precious Polaroids with which we once left behind our most human traces of soul will become Instagram albums filled with images of us “twerking” at McDonald’s and five hundred pictures of our cat who may or may not “haz a sad.”

It seems that we’ve forgotten the privilege and purpose of documentation. We’ve lost sight of the miraculous beauty and wonder of language. Now that we can make note of every second of our lives from a tiny machine in our pocket we feel it necessary to capture them all rather than select our most defining moments. Humans are rapidly becoming a being that believes the assertion: “I tweet, therefore I am.” But I assert the counter claim: “I’ve been copied, therefore I no longer am.” The capture of our every breath in indestructible perpetuity leaves no space for life to be lived between the moments that define our selves. It is a negation of the “I” inherent in each person that is filled with a “we” that does not collect our lives as anthology but as statistical data. If the sum of you as a being lies copied and coded on a Google server in an air conditioned room somewhere, where then do you reside? And where is it that your ancestors will find you again one day? Will you live on through the finest pieces of your essence crafted, presented, and preserved as your mark in this world or will you be a collection of mass behavioral observation data? If you want true immortality, put life into what you leave behind and you will never die. But I assure you, if you aren’t careful, you’ll leave life behind long before you die.

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