Of selfies and dumbing down

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Came across this thoughtful article on what may be the most popular activity today: selfies. But, like all things, it does come with a price. As Olympia Nelson wrote ("Dark undercurrents of teenage girls’ selfies," Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July 2013): "If social media only caused narcissism, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. Instagram and Facebook are social networks that not only breed narcissistic tendencies but transform relations into a sexual rat race."

It’s the unoriginality, the lack of any creativity, the impulse to conform (sexually, politically, or whatever) that makes even this simple act of self-indulgence go from bad to worse: "Everyone likes receiving compliments and it makes us feel awesome that our own appearance can provide us with an ego boost. But what kind of photos produce an epidemic of ‘likes?’ Nothing with too much creativity but hip, titty and kiss. It’s the true scourge of the selfie."

In the end, one can’t help but agree with Nelson’s insight of the selfy being "a neurotic impulse, not a happy one." And, we have to note, this narcissism has nothing to do with gender: guys are as apt to engage in this narcissistic, self-indulgent sort of behavior as girls.

This reminds me of three Trade Tripper articles I wrote, noting down the seeming self-obsession of people nowadays. Somehow, it’s convincing me I may be prescient. Or something like it.

The first was written in 2010, "Everybody’s a Rockstar:" "Everybody’s a rockstar nowadays. People that normally would have no claim to fame (or notoriety) would find their faces (and complete range of poses) on the Internet. Being ill informed, unread, or without any semblance of writing skills? Doesn’t stop them from airing their views extensively on Facebook."

The resulting danger of a culture encouraging (even rewarding) intellectually lazy people is something related to what James Surowiecki wrote about. Interestingly (and ironically), the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, actually discards the idea of an infallible crowd and instead bolsters an idea we all already know: a deliberate and studied decision by an informed people will always be better than one made out of the emotional unthinking actions of the many. Our history is replete with the latter. The tragedy in such situations of "irrational" crowds is that any good, studied, and learned thinking by individuals become lost, discarded, or -- worse -- attacked. In this regard, Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture would be good to read.

Which leads to the second article -- "The Anti-Intellectual State:" "But indeed, the reason for this anti-intellectual bias lies with our ‘intellectuals’ themselves. I mean: "do we even have real intellectuals?" After all, "Intellectuals are there to encourage the greater populace to think critically and objectively, to think calmly and methodically, to discuss politely, to like thinking (and learning), and to think for a purpose. Not paralyze people into inaction or scream loads of esoteric data in order to shut them up. In the end, our people have no respect for intellectuals (as well as politicians) because those who pretend to being it are merely into one huge ego trip and treat being an intellectual as a performance for people’s entertainment. They serve no purpose other than as a diversion during coffee breaks or cocktails. Intellectuals should exhort people to unify their actions with their thoughts, demand responsibility and accountability, all rooted in realistic and doable considerations. Above all, intellectuals should practice what they preach. Otherwise, they’re just encouraging the country to be basket cases like them."

The third article I referred to was written just a few months ago, "Me, Myself, and I:" "While indeed the democratization of information, the full utilization of the wisdom of crowds, and the greater participation of the public in the marketplace of ideas is ostensibly beneficial, not so if it leads people to sloppiness in thought.

Writer and Cambridge lecturer (never mind Oxford) Edward de Bono certainly thinks so. In an interview with news.com.au, he said: ‘There is danger on the internet and social media... that you do not have to think to be very dangerous. Social media causes laziness, that we feel will get more information and do not need to have his own ideas. We got the idea from someone else, we do not need to look at the data, we only see what others have to say.’"

In the end, we (specially the parents) either face up to this problem now. Or pay for it later. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss such concerns as being the product of an overly dogmatic mind. But ask yourself this question: would you really think that a child reared on the uncritiqued, unjudged, the "everybody is ok because you feel good" mentality can stand up to the rigors of the real world? I’m sure the parents of our neighboring Asian countries already know the answer to that.