Selfie: A tool of fun and narcissism or a tool of control?

At the end of Annie Hall— an American film written and directed by comedian extraordinaire Woody Allen— Alvy Singer, a stand-up comic played by Allen himself, cracks a prescient joke on the human condition.

The joke goes like this: A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, ‘hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken.' The doc says, ‘Well, why don’t you have him admitted?’ Then the guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs’.

Allen then takes it home: “I guess that's how I feel about relationships. They're totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.”

Much of today’s digital, data-driven economy— where our online life is funded by our personal data— is a case of us ‘needing the eggs’.

Our relationships with Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter are completely crazy, irrational and absurd. Yet we continue to nurture them because there are very few other ways for us to communicate in the digital world. Even those who would dream of disconnecting have no choice; Silicon Valley has a de facto monopoly on online communication and publishing for most netizens. (How would one, for instance, reach out to a friend who only uses Facebook?)

What’s worse is that we are slowly losing the ability to see that these relationships are crazy, irrational and absurd.

In the mainframe era, identity was often reduced to a numeric string a’la the famous IBM punch card. To hold a punch card with your name written across it was to see your ‘self’ being represented by a number of binary punch holes, a series of silent 1s and 0s.

In the 1960s, at the University of California, Berkely, which was the centre of the Free Speech Movement in America, punched cards became a symbol of what was wrong with the system. Used as they were for class registration, and as a more ominous symbol of uniformity, they were torn up during protests.

To tear up a punch card, as student leader Mario Savio famously put it, was to liberate one’s self “from the machine.”

It was easy, therefore, to see how the populace was being ‘administered’ by those in power. Crude technological limitations made it obvious. Citizens were told to carry their papers, show their IDs and not to fold or mutilate their punched cards.

Self and the Selfie

Last week, I was reminded of how radically the situation has changed. I was at a wedding, and, because of it, was a mostly-unwilling participant in a number of seflies—a photograph whose quality is often directly proportional to the length of the photographer’s arms.

The machine’s human interface, its physical representation of the Self, is no longer the punch card. It is the selfie—a lovingly crafted image of the I.

In the digital era, there is no precious punch card that must not be torn in order to assure the smooth workings of the machine. The machine instead allows us to craft our own identity with what we used to call an avatar, a bits-and-byte representation of our Self. Facebook and Twitter have ensured that the once inscrutable avatar—which could have been anything—have given way to the selfie.

If the punch card was a form of depersonalisation through the reduction of ones identity, social networking and the seflie have ensured that depersonalisation is now personalised. Of course, behind the curtains, its all still zeroes and ones. While the punch card made the relationship between human and machine obvious, the selfie and the avatar obscures and hides it.

There’s a peculiar sense of irony in realizing the face of the machine is now our own.

Keywords: selfieselfcontrolpunch cardavatar