A Maze of Mirrors
Today we get lost in a maze of mirrors that distort our reflections of the self, argues anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita. He says that our screen technology has grown to a new pinnacle of addictive delight in the digital age because our screens make it possible for us to live in a dual role: as both spectator and star.1
In the rare moments when we catch broad attention—whether through our images or tweets or memes—we become the star. And when we watch ourselves get approved and liked, we become the spectator too. In social media, our dual spectator-and-star role is seen “in the special intensity, the devotional glow you see on the face of a stranger in some random public place, leaning over her handheld device, utterly absorbed . . . matching twitter-wits on a trending topic, feeling the swell of attention rising around her as she rides an energy wave of commentary, across the country, around the world—it’s like the touch of a cosmic force, thanks to the smallest and most potent of all personal screens, the one on her smartphone.”2As we watch others watching us, we get caught up in the energy of becoming the star. We become spectators of our digital selves.
We Are Being Changed
Our digital photos and selfies only amplify this self-projection. According to global stats, we now take more than one trillion digital pictures per year. We become actors before our own phones and the phones of our friends. We modify ourselves and filter our appearance. And then we become spectators of ourselves, because “each selfie is a performance of a person as they hope to be seen by others.”3As blobs, we seek an identity projection that others will celebrate.
Our camera-ready culture has changed us. Until 1920 no one thought it was appropriate to smile for a camera. Today we all must be ready to be photographed at any moment, ready to strike a performance pose contorted for the camera. Image is everything, and social media is where we craft the spectacle of ourselves. As we perform our self-chosen identities in front of our cameras, we find that the magic of computer-generated imagery (CGI) has been put in our hands. Our digital self is now editable by endless filters and lenses and bitmojis—a unique plasticity for self-sculpting offered to no other generation in human history.
After writing a book exclusively about smartphones and how they form and de-form our self-perception, I will not belabor the social media spectacle here.4What’s important to see in this project is that self-sculpting and self-projecting make social media an irresistible spectacle because we become the self-molded star at the center of it all. As a result of these cultural shifts, we each feel the shift from being to appearing. Our self-made images—our digital appearings—become everything. In a deeply addictive way, we exist as both star and spectator. And social media “testifies to the power of that dual aspect of display, a reciprocal intimacy that no engagement with any other medium, let alone reality, can match.”5
1. Thomas de Zengotita, “We Love Screens, Not Glass,” theatlantic.com, March 12, 2014.
3. Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More (New York: Basic, 2016), 62.
4. See Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).
5. de Zengotita, “We Love Screens, Not Glass.”