Public Lives



There was a time when, as a young man traveling to different countries for the first time, I took photos of every building, statue, or landscape that caught my eye, hoping to share these with family and friends when I got home. I realized many years later that this habit was keeping me from enjoying and remembering the places I visited.

The experience is akin to filing away memos in neat folders for later retrieval so your mind is freed for the next task. You end up unable to recall much of what you filed away unless you have the actual document at hand. Busying yourself with picture-taking while on a trip to a new place creates a gap between you and the moment. It can strip traveling of the quality that uniquely belongs to it as an experience—the slow immersion in something new, and the oscillation between awe and recognition it brings about.

I think it is even more so when one likes to take “selfies”—the new obsession that has accompanied the advent of camera-equipped mobile phones, and social networking portals like Facebook and Instagram. Declaring it as the new word of the year, the venerable Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “Selfie: noun, informal. A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or web cam and uploaded to a social media website. Also: selfy. Plural: selfies.”

To me, selfies are not the same as looking at oneself in the mirror, and the silent self-contemplation this connotes. On the contrary, they seem to epitomize the vast distance that separates narcissism from self-knowledge.

While almost every painter of worth in every era has done a self-portrait, taking a selfie for sharing and liking cannot possibly compare with the experience of an artist pondering the moods, desires, and emotions evoked by the lines and contours of his own face. The selfie is pure self-absorption where the self-portrait could be self-analysis. What distinguishes one from the other is the superficiality to which much digital communication technology has lent itself.

The writer Rebecca Solnit captures this difference eloquently in a recent London Review of Books essay titled “In the Day of the Postman.” She writes: “I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.”

We are not just talking here of the occasional photos we take of ourselves, usually against the background of a place we are visiting, when there’s no one around to do it for us.  Rather, we are talking of the almost compulsive manner in which many of today’s young people try to capture what they look like at any moment of the day. By taking countless pictures of themselves in different poses, and posting these in social networking websites for others to like (or deride, as the case may be), they presume that the world is interested in them—a way, as Solnit puts it, of “assuaging fears of being alone.” At the same time, their obsession with the number of likes and comments they get on these poses could be a way of evading the real challenge of deeply knowing and connecting with their own selves.

The sociologist Niklas Luhmann once defined maturity as a system’s capacity to observe itself. The term he uses for self-observation is reflexivity, the defining quality of the modern person. But, for all the cutting-edge modernity of the technology that serves as its platform, the selfie seems to me to be a throwback to the premodern era when men and women relied primarily on others to define who they were.

Rather than being a prelude to changing one’s life, the selfie has become no more than a cheap vehicle for instant self-affirmation. Like the ubiquitous mobile phone with which almost all of them are taken, doing selfies has taken the place reserved for reflection. We can no longer be alone with ourselves without yielding to the temptation of documenting the moment for social media. Solnit observes: “The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void, and filled up with sounds and distraction.” And selfies.

Perhaps, it’s a generation thing, which is why I’m conscious that I should not impose my idea of well-spent solitude on others. I like bird-watching, reading, taking solitary walks, and barreling down on an empty expressway, alone, on a motorcycle. Some will likely say these are precisely the pursuits of loners.

But, even in the company of others, I hardly take pictures, and I don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account. On a trip to Japan a few months ago, however, I decided to get myself a Nikon Coolpix P-520 with a built-in 42x optical zoom, thinking it might enhance and prolong my enjoyment of birds. I was wrong. I spent more time looking for birds through the viewfinder and focusing the lens to get a clear shot, than if I had been content to watch these winged creatures through binoculars.

I am convinced that many great moments of pleasure and happiness are not meant to be preserved, but merely lived.  It was to this end that Nietzsche once said that we need “human beings who know how to be silent, lonely, resolute, and content and constant in invisible activities…”

Happy New Year!

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  • Benigno the Turd

    Is that what Noynoy’s DO NOTHING been for? contemplation and inner enlightenment?

    • AntiAko

      Now don’t be such a pooper….

  • mad_as_Hamlet

    * * * * * *
    Along the good writer’s line of thought, it would appear to my mind that there are four kinds of inhabitants of the modern digital world: 1.) the selfies; 2.) the paparazzi; 3.) those who think about or are bothered by what 1 and 2 do; and, 4.) those who don’t give a da m n about the three.
    – – -

    • cogito728sum

      I would prefer the 5th kind mi amici, the one whose thoughts infuse confidence and optimism for a better health, one whose madness is always a source of laughter, still the best medicine even in this digital era. Have a good and Happy New Year despite Yolanda, mi amici. Merci!

      • mad_as_Hamlet

        * * * * * * * *
        Thank you my good friend! And a Happy New Year too!
        Yes, Yolanda was a bad joke and must be relegated to the watery and wild depths where it came from. The good jokes that comforting breezes and tranquil waters bring will always be here to stay.
        – – -

      • cogito728sum

        A day late it maybe still it is a most welcomed assurance of a cyberspace friendship, here to stay. A friendship that has to be sealed in person over a cup of coffee. Can there be a more meaningful way of starting the New Year than savouring, with our family, the preciousness of such friendship? The appropriate time has arrived, but I have to know the coordinates, to the nearest minute, to find the source of such most wonderful expression of humanity. With the help of that man whose life is devoted to baying at the moon, I’ll find the way. Take good care of yourself and your love ones mi amici. Merci!

    • cogito728sum

      Actually mi amici, along with the 5th kind of inhabitants of the “modern digital world” I added below, is a 6th. I encounter them in my daily morning walk in the mall because of the frigid temperature outside. They are as daring as the paparazzis and as indifferent to their world as the 4th type in your category. They walk with coffee in their right hand while they are busy texting with their left thumb, unmindful of their steps. One has to be very alert of them if one doesn’t want scalded by hot coffee. They are the exact opposite of the “selfies”. I call them the “selfish.” Merci!

      • TGM _ERICK

        He he he! Good that I am not guilty of that but I do eat while walking but my mom pur a stop to it. Unlafy like saw. Merry Christmas and a blissful new year to you.

      • cogito728sum

        Same to you! Merci!

    • TGM _ERICK

      So very glad to near from you. I thought Yolanda victimized you. hHehehe. This is English sekfeies. Meffy Christmas and a blissful new year to you

      • mad_as_Hamlet

        * * * * * *
        Thanks a lot for that, TGM_ERICK! Happy New Year!
        _ _ _

    • AntiAko

      Love this! Now where do I categorize myself? Hmmmm…..

  • perpetual7

    “…’human beings who knew how to be silent, lonely, resolute and content and constant in invisible activities…’ “. They are the ones who live peaceful lives, sharing what they possess measly or abundantly, with joy. Wisdom taught them to be wise investors towards reaping lasting treasures and they always relay gratitude in utmost humility in their invisible activities.

    • TGM _ERICK

      People are different and I enjoy sharing my sadness and happiness. My FB is public. Hdhehe. I have no fear of stolen identity for there is no money yo steal from me. Merry Christmas and blissful New Year to you.

      • perpetual7

        Belated Merry Christmas good friend and have a tranquil, hopeful and investment-filled new year! Treasures that neither woodworms could destroy nor robbers can barge in and steal.

      • TGM _ERICK

        My good friend, I don’t have much money to invest but happily I am investing on my one and only Apoluv who I pray to be an honest hardworking fellow. I have such high hopes for him and who knows he could be a future prime minister of this republic. He he he. Di masama mangarap.


    Selfies are not for the young alone. I am a senior and I enjoy taking cp pics of myself in important events showing the many moods that I had in such different occasions. Pics do not lie. Try having a Facebook of your own and you will find out that sekfies are not bad at all.
    Merry Christmas and a blissful new year to all especially those whom I cannot greet personally in the reply box. This doesn’t mean that you are less of a friend.


    “…and I don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account.”, Randy David stated.
    ISN’T IT SELFIE? Hahaha!
    Trying to draw the contrast and isolating himself as the ultimate crusader of peace, quiet and happiness…

    • TGM _ERICK

      Hi, Jr. Although born inin 1863 or 61, let me greet youa Merry Christmas and a bjlissful new year.

  • Mang Teban

    I don’t know why Mr. Randy David cannot appreciate why some people love to take self-portraits via photography rather than the slow and long process of painting or sketching oneself’s image.

    I ain’t sociologist but should a sociologist like Mr. Randy David expand his view farther and wider away from his fixed-framed mindset?

    Taking a “selfie” snapshot is not narcissistic in my view. It is chronicling every moment that an individual wants to take. When the shot is not good, it is easy to delete it and take another one. So, only the good ones are kept. If every person who is fond of taking “selfies” is a narcissist, then he or she would not delete any photo taken. Of course, there are narcissists but not every “selfie” enthusiast is a narcissist.

    I have been and continues to be a tourist, too, and I make sure that the scenery that catches my eye will be captured in my camera. However, I will be taking it twice, one without me and the other with me alone or with my companions. Of course, I am not like a paparrazo who takes several shots in milliseconds with high-powered cameras. It is the leisurely walk through and then a short stop to take photos and/or videos with the simplest mechanism in the instant mobile camera with video function or the digital camera I bring along for reserve.

    Nonetheless, I enjoy my holiday this way contented to be able to pictures and still feel the surroundings without the camera. No pressure. It is also good advice to go to one city or town, one day at a time. I am not inclined to go with group tours that take away the freedom of a tourist to choose the places he or she wants to see.

  • virgoyap

    Selfie is meant to be shared and not to be kept for oneself only.

  • Entitledako

    A selfie is done for various reasons. It does not automatically mean being a narcissist. It is a visual form of expression with reasons only known to the person doing it.

  • dorkstar

    When will be the time that some people stop judging others? If selfies makes some people happy, let them be. Be happy for them instead. It is an expression. It is capturing the moment without bothering others to take the picture for them. When a photographic moment passes by, you will never have it back. Treasure those moment while you can and preserve it as long as possible. If you can preserve those moments in a form of a selfie, by all means, take it. It is better to gaze at your own image, than looking into some abyss, since it is your own image who looks at you rather than the abyss. [Sorry, cannot help referring to Nietzsche’s famous quote :-) ]

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