The School Doctor: Selfies and Shelfies

The School Doctor discusses the digital world in the world of the younger generation in his latest post.

The perils of the digital world are numerous and well-known. Our attention spans — especially the attention spans of younger generations — are dwindling down to seconds. We crave a new stimulus every ten seconds or so — this is why US sitcoms aim to have their audiences in paroxysms of laughter every other breath, before they change channel. We spend our days like gunslingers from old westerns, only we use our smartphones rather than guns, and if gunslingers whipped out their weapons with the frequency we do our iPhones, the Wild West would have been an even bloodier place. We are losing sleep because we fear missing out on the latest non-event. We stay wired to Instagram or Facebook just in case someone ‘likes’ our latest pithy observation or Throwback Thursday picture, and we can get a tiny short-term buzz, literally and metaphorically.

It has now apparently become the norm to send across cyberspace pictures of body parts that were once reserved for a, shall we say, ‘smaller’ audience. Selfies of any description often speak of a desperate need for validation: ‘please like my face; like where I am; like what I’m doing; like me, or the constructed me, because I’m not sure about the real me’. Our political systems seem to be at the mercy of sinister external interference, as bots and trolls are used to hurl old-style propaganda (‘fake news!’) in our relatively new digital world. The decency of public debate, our civic (once) norms, swirl down the technological toilet, as below-the-liners frequently swap polite and constructive disagreement for ad hominem vitriol, led by a Twitter bully-in-chief.  

So it is down to schools — and parents — to help our charges navigate this new and rapidly-changing world. Information evenings are held; well-meaning acronyms are devised; ‘If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it online’, we plead; issues of criminality are raised; lessons in spotting fake news and dodgy websites are planned (though we use to call that ‘sourcework’). Then we whip our iPhone out of our pocket, check how many people have ‘liked’ the latest picture of our cat looking like Hitler, and take a selfie of ourselves in front of the ‘Safer Internet Day’ banner. (I am, of course, away of the irony that I am typing this on a computer and you are reading this on a blog.)

Flippancy aside, there are clearly serious pitfalls that we, and our pupils need to avoid. And it is very much part of our pupils’ wellbeing that they learn digital detox strategies, to look up from their screens – whether it be to extend an attention span that will be rather useful in the workplace, or to appreciate the opportunities and beauty of the world around them, friendships that aren’t mediated by Instagram or Facebook, or to not end up on some kind of register.

But I want to suggest that there is a further reason for a digital detox, and this comes in the form of self-identity. Or, as it is punningly called, ‘shelf-identity’. A purely digital approach to life encourages us to download or stream our music, books and films. There are many advantages to this: not having to wait, not having to store clunky boxes. But it has been observed that there has already been a move away from this approach, as evidenced in the resurgent popularity of real books, and of teenagers buying vinyl.

This is partly because such products are tactile — we have a sense of having bought them, of owning them, and being able to use them whenever we want, not when Apple deigns to let us access them. But it is also, I suggest, because they help to form our self-identity, the ‘us’ that we wish to broadcast to the world. We all unconsciously curate our cultural lives by investing in some authors, musicians, actors, and shunning others. Over time, the way we perceive ourselves becomes articulated through our bookshelves – CDs sit alongside DVDs, which sit alongside records, which sit alongside books. Each item has an association — where it was bought, with whom it was bought, by whom it was given as a gift. And those associations contribute to our ‘shelf-identity’, the who-we-are that builds up over time, and which we silently broadcast to ourselves and others. Consciously or unconsciously, we take pride in collating what it is to be ‘us’. A number of years ago, in a fit of down-sizing, I dumped in the attic all my DVD boxes and put the discs themselves into a single carry-bag. Convenient and space-saving it may have been, but it was profoundly depressing not to cast my eye across the shelf and have the mental stimulation of the association game. Within six months the boxes were back again.

We can, of course have, digital shelves. These come in the form of ‘What you have watched recently’, or through playlists, or ‘You have watched that, so watch this’ recommendations. But this latter digital shelf brings its own danger. Such algorithms pen us into a cultural cul-de-sac: ‘If you liked that, you’ll like this’, we’re told on Netflix and the like. But we need our horizons broadened, not narrowed. We are castigated for our use of political echo chambers on social media, but not for an ever-decreasing cultural hinterland. Let’s try: ‘You liked this, but this is totally different – try it; ‘You watched that, but it sucked, so here’s something diametrically opposite – have a go’.

As the average new property size decreases, and as habitation space for future generations gets smaller, the temptation is clearly to downsize. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But be judicious in what gets thrown out — don’t discard your identity, as you disappear down a digital rabbit hole. That identity will be articulated through the physical cultural artefacts you enjoy and have enjoyed so far through life. And if you must take a photo on your phone, flip the camera round so it shows what’s around you — not you, but what makes you, you.

 

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