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Don’t Blame Phones for Narcissism

A new book argues that 2,500 years of culture have caused an outbreak of self-obsession.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Let me tell you about my selfie face. I like my head to be at a slight angle, one cheek turned to the lens so my eyes are looking at the camera sideways and never straight on. This is best for hiding the fact that my eyes are not symmetrical—a result of being born with ptosis, a drooping eyelid, and many operations to correct it. From the side and with a bit of a squint, it’s not that prominent. I also like to shoot the picture from below so it catches my jaw, which has a sharp angle, the jaw of a serious man. And then there’s my smile. My lips pursed look funny. So I keep them apart a bit, but not too much or my big teeth dominate and look goofy. I go for a wry thing, just a small lift at the corners of my mouth, slightly bemused, the look of someone who is maybe a little bit better than you.

Overlook, 403 pp., $29.95

Don’t judge. I know I’m not the only one. I walk through Times Square every day to work, and nearly knock into at least a dozen of these selfie faces each way—lips unnaturally puckered, eyes wide and chins thrust out. So here’s a chicken-and-egg question: Where does this urge to capture and project perfect selves come from? Are the supercomputers in our pockets to blame, offering an irresistible pull, shaping the desire itself? Or did this narcissistic drive exist before the technology, an instinct of the modern self that smartphones have simply allowed us to indulge? 

Ours is a boom time for technological determinism, of constant worry about how Siri or Instagram or YouTube is changing the way our brains and society and politics works. A long line of polemical books now form a techno-pessimist canon of sorts: from way back in 1993 when Neil Postman warned in Technopoly about how culture was becoming a slave to technology to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and its vision of the distracted, dumbed-down human beings the Internet was producing. And on and on. It would be easy to suggest, likewise, that today much self-obsession is also a function of the ever-present gadget. But consider this cute counterfactual from W. Keith Campbell, the social psychologist best known for diagnosing a “narcissism epidemic”:  “We could have filled the Internet with ‘Mom-ies,’ taking pictures of our mom every day and saying how great our mom is. But we didn’t do that.” No, we certainly did not. As soon as phones with cameras appeared, almost everyone took the opportunity to turn them on themselves.

Campbell is among the many experts the British journalist and novelist Will Storr interviewed for Selfie, his free ranging account of the modern, ego-driven Western self. Despite the digital wink of the title, this is a story that arrives at Silicon Valley only in its second to last chapter. As he sets out to reverse engineer that ridiculous face I make into my phone, he finds it to be the result of a long historical process. It is 2,500 years of culture layered on top of biology that have determined this need to selfie. Aristotle, Jesus, Freud, Ayn Rand and the Esalen Institute are to blame—much more than Steve Jobs.

Storr’s starting point is his own self-loathing. Why does he feel so doomed never to measure up? He diagnoses himself—and many of the rest of us—with neurotic perfectionism, oppressed by an ideal of the self as “an extroverted, slim, beautiful, individualistic, optimistic, hard-working, socially aware yet high-self-esteeming global citizen with entrepreneurial guile and a selfie camera.” This ideal should be familiar from our Facebook feeds—that distant friend who can be seen vacationing on a beautiful beach with his loving family. But this unrealistic self is more than just an annoyance. For Storr, the delusions it inspires of possible, achievable perfection can be fatal. He even cites suicide statistics.

He traces the origins of this perfectionism to the tribal nature of the earliest human societies, in which individuals became super attuned to social hierarchy and status—all the better to survive. This, Storr believes, encoded humans with a genetic predisposition to “get along and get ahead.” From there, culture took over. The physical landscape of Ancient Greece, jagged mountains, islands and inlets, not particularly well suited to agriculture, pushed individuals and communities there toward market-based economies, competing with one another to excel at whatever it is they produced or sold. “Potter resents potter and carpenter resents carpenter, and beggar is jealous of beggar and poet of poet,” wrote Hesiod in the 7th or 8th Century BC. What emerged from all this jealousy and jostling was an ethos of self-improvement. As the Stanford historian Adrienne Mayor has written, Aristotle believed that “all things in nature”—including human beings—“moved towards achieving perfection of their potentials.” 

What had been, for the Greeks, a desire for ostentatious success became in medieval Europe a struggle to control the self through prayer and flagellation—to battle inner badness and become pure. The focus became the soul, but the notion of an ideal persisted and that an individual has the capacity, on their own and through enough individual will and work, to arrive perfection. Storr hopscotches over the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to arrive at Freud. But he sees little that is new in the theory of a battling id and superego, which he contends is simply a secular version of the Christian notion of reforming the bad self. The real change—the big one when it comes to the self, and most responsible for the current craziness—comes a little later in the 20th century, according to Storr, in California, to which his whole book shifts in its second half.

On the Pacific Coast, where Storr arrives like a Brit out of water, he makes his way to the Esalen Institute, which in the 1960s and 70s “helped rewrite our sense of who we are,” he grandly claims. In the encounter groups that took place here (and still do, in a different form, an experience to which Storr subjects himself), people were provoked, often harshly, into screaming at imaginary parents and usually ended up berating each other. Sobbing breakdowns were common. It turned the work of psychotherapy, of dredging up desires out of the muck of social expectation, from the practice of gaining mastery over these suppressed feelings into one in which they were given freedom to roam—as many a liberated former Freudian analyst did at Esalen, wandering the grounds naked and erect. The assumption underlying all of it was that, unfettered, each one of us is actually perfect, lovable, and god-like, and that all we want is within our grasp if we just reach out, ignore others, and take it.

This is where the idea of “self-esteem” exploded. Storr tells the story (in a long, slightly digressive section) of John “Vasco” Vasconcellos, a California assemblyman, who soaked in Esalen’s famous springs and managed to secure funding for a state task force on the cure-all benefits of self-esteem as a “vaccine” for any social disease. It’s in the controversy around the creation of this task force and its positive findings, endorsed by Oprah, that Storr locates a patient zero in the spread of this epidemic. It wasn’t long before children were being given participation trophies: One Massachusetts school district ordered gym classes to allow students to jump rope without actual rope—the better to avoid the damage to their self-esteem that tripping might cause.

All this me-first-ism coincided with the apotheosis of a no-holds-barred version of capitalism—a world of competitive individuals, judged by their achievement of wealth and fame, and economies (the new “terroir of the self,” Storr writes) that privileged the narcissist. Margaret Thatcher said of her free market policies in 1981 that “Economics are the method, but the object is to change the soul.” Storr places Nathaniel Branden at the intersection of Esalen’s cult of self-esteem and a “greed is good” cult of success. A psychotherapist and Ayn Rand’s lover (and junior by 25 years), he became a mentor to Vasconcellos, the California assemblyman. The child, Branden wrote in his notes for Vasconcellos’s task force, should be “in love with his/her own existence,” able to “practice selfishness in the highest, noblest and least understood sense of this word.”

After all this, the rise of social media, offering everyone an Instagram account and an iPhone, only exacerbated this pathological self-love. That the idea of an eminently elastic and ultimately optimal self is a fiction—a “cultural lie,” Storr angrily calls it—is not exactly news. Far more interesting is the way Storr frames social media as an enabler of this fiction, but not as its creator. In the dead eyes of CJ, a 20-year-old who takes selfies almost every hour of the day (“I’ve genuinely taken selfies at a funeral”), Storr sees an entrenched culture of self-esteem and an economy that has taught her that she should always be selling herself. The phone is secondary. 

Storr wants to tell a clean story. His claims can, as a result, often feel overblown. It’s just as reductionist to state that individualism can be traced back to the craggy geography of Greece or that the notion of self-esteem originated from wacky happenings at an institute sitting on the cliffs of Big Sur as it is to blame Facebook for a chronic lack of empathy in young people. His historical tour is pretty loosey goosey, skipping over, for example, the Enlightenment, the scientific and industrial revolutions, the rise of democracy, and, yes, the impact of technology on communication from the telegraph until today. All this too helped chisel the contours of the modern self. But for Storr the story comes down to a few cherry-picked facts from biology, culture and economics. It seems possible to say on every page, “yes, but.” 

Selfie is best approached as a corrective, and a much needed one, to a moment fixated on its own particularity. I’m not as concerned as Storr about the state of the modern self. There are even good arguments for the selfie—like the feminist one made by Rachel Syme that turning the camera on one’s self, becoming subject and object, is an empowering act. I think that most people, when they’ve shut off their phones at night, know their own finitude and, even if they are a little too enthralled by the idea of endless possibility and the prospect of perfection, find this fiction more comforting than harmful. Until Google or Amazon invents an app for solving the problem of mortality, I think we’ll all remain humbled enough. 

But we should let go of the idea that our technologies are us, that we are somehow the sum total of the platforms we use. Storr is helpful here, if only to point out that the modern self is, as he nicely puts it, a “sack of noisy ghosts.” And there are many more rattling inside that sack alongside Aristotle and Esalen. His book is, in this way, a prod toward the study of the humanities—toward history, literature, philosophy, religion—the very subjects that have dimmed next to the bright light of the screen. Just maybe, if more people can be convinced that this wealth of culture offers them a mirror to themselves, they might be willing to put down the phone for a few minutes and gaze inside.