Friday, September 25, 2015

Teaching Sociology: Materialism And Why The Selfie Is Not As Vain As Old People Think (Part Something In A Never-Ending Series)

Last night I was watching the Nightly Show, and what began as an almost interesting conversation turned to complaining about those damn kids and their damn selflies these days:

This certainly isn't unique to Larry Wilmore and friends, I just use this as an example because I saw it last night. But surely if you ever watch tv or read anything on the internet, you'll hear people complain about how vain kids these days are, because they constantly take pictures of themselves and what they're eating (why pictures of food make you vain I don't understand, but what do I know?).

Anyway, it's a pretty common argument. And it's pretty much completely wrong. Kids today aren't necessarily any more or less vain than previous generations, but instead, live in a materially different world.

Materialism is a philosophy most often connected to the works of Marx and Marxists, although not exclusive to Marxist thought. To dramatically oversimplify the concept, the idea is that it's the real, material conditions of an era that shape how people think and act (as opposed to idealism, which holds that it's great ideas that shape history and society).

As an example, I often use the higher incidence of drunk driving violations in the Upper Midwest (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas tend to be 1-5 in drunk driving rates in any given year); while it's possible some of this comes from a culture more open to the concept of drunk driving, I would argue it stems from the material conditions found in these places -- mostly rural states in which, outside of the few major urban centers, public transportation and even taxis are virtually nonexistent. Throw in the fact that these rural spaces are also geographically dispersed, and you get a situation in which most people have to drive a fair distance to go to a bar. Then, if they over consume, they are left with few options to get home -- if there's no friend they can call to come pick them up, it's not like they can take a cab or bus home. So often the only option is to just hop in the car and drive home drunk. So it's not that Midwesterners necessarily approve of or accept drunk driving more than people do elsewhere, but that they have far fewer options for avoiding drunk driving than do most people elsewhere.

So how does this apply to selflies? Well, a big part of the generational divide in how much teenagers take pictures of themselves now as opposed to in previous generations comes from not facing the same material limitations as previous generations did. Before the ubiquity of smart phones, taking pictures cost real money. You needed to own a camera, you had to buy film, you had to pay for the film to be developed, etc. There were also those non-economic "costs" that made it less likely you'd take pictures of yourself everywhere -- you needed to remember your camera, you needed to carry enough film with you, you needed somewhere to store all the photos you took, etc. There were direct, actual monetary and non-monetary costs to every photo you took, and as such, you had to be much more judicious with your use of film, thus making you less likely to waste it on pictures deemed frivolous.

But the technology explosion of the past few decades has rendered those physical limitations and costs mostly moot. If you have a smartphone, you not only have a pretty decent camera with you, but you also have significant storage space for pictures. And the cost of these photos is effectively nil -- sure, the phone is probably pretty expensive, but it's unlikely anyone is buying a smartphone solely for its camera capabilities. And while there are effective limits to how many photos you can store on your phone, it's also quite easy to upload those photos to a much more expansive storage file, and smartphone data storage abilities are continuing to grow.

So in a few short years, we've gone from each photo taken having a real, identifiable costs associated with it, to the cost of taking, developing, and storing a photo being essentially nothing.

This, of course, leaves one free to "waste" film on all sorts of things. Things previous generations probably would have deemed as not photo worthy not because they had really well-developed sense for what is and is not inherently picture worthy, but because that stuff cost actual money. Of course it's an impossible to prove counterfactual, but I think it's pretty reasonable to assume that had taking pictures been basically free for previous generations, they probably would have been taking selfies and dumb pictures of their food, too.

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