MILLENNIALS CAN’T HELP BUT TURN THEIR PHONES ON THEMSELVES. HERE, GQ CONTRIBUTOR AND BRITISH AUTHOR, STORR, EXPLORES THE PRESSURES TO BE NARCISSISTIC, AND WHY ANCIENT GREECE IS TO BLAME.
The technologists of Silicon Valley never stop pitching. Countless thousands of apps, websites and devices are launched every year, the great majority of which are destined only to be a sad minus entry, coloured red, on some venture capitalist’s spreadsheet. When, in 2010, Apple announced the new feature of its latest iphone model would be a front-facing camera, it seemed a marginal development whose chance of survival would be down to its purported usefulness for video chats on Skype or Facetime. But that’s not what happened. Instead, an entire generation of teens and twentysomethings began using it to snap close-ups of their own faces and slapping them online for likes and comments. Rechristened the ‘selfie camera’, it meant everything we thought we knew about the narcissistic millennials was spectacularly confirmed. Seven years later, the dark ramifications of the meeting of social media and the selfie camera are beginning to emerge. Frontline medical professionals talk of an era of “unprecedented social pressures” where young people feel model-grade bodies and faces are a minimum requirement for peer acceptance. Anxiety is on the rise, as are rates of eating disorders, self-harm and, in men, the use of anabolic steroids to boost muscle mass. And the pressure isn’t only that we look the same, we have to think the same as well. Political views are aggressively policed online. Whether you’re a student or a CEO, if you even question the dominant narratives, you risk the mob turning on you and all the horrible real-life upshots that can lead to. All of this creates a social environment in which the pressure to be perfect often feels immense. Contrary to popular opinion, however, all of this didn’t start with Instagram and the selfie camera. In fact, you can trace our journey to this age of perfectionism back 2500 years, to Ancient Greece. Modern psychologists have looked at the creation of individualism, which is a particular way of looking at the world that sees reality as being made up of individual pieces and parts. The concept has never left us and is different in profound ways to that of other cultures, such as that of East Asia, which tends to see reality as a field of connected forces. To explain how this happened, scholars point to the fact that Ancient Greece was composed of about 1000 individual city states, many situated on rocky coasts or small islands. This landscape, while being terrible for team-intensive projects such as farming, encouraged small industries and trading. Foreign traders brought in new ideas. Debate was encouraged. Individuals were celebrated for their achievements and became famous. In this way, an atomised environment became an atomised worldview. It was codified by Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, a believer in the perfectibility of the individual through learning and practice. This idea is with us today more than ever. After suffering a slight retreat in the middle decades of the last century, individualism surged again under the neoliberal policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They determined to rescue their nations from the economic chaos of the ’70s by turning as much of human life as possible into a competition of individual versus individual. They began by stripping back protections for workers, in the form of welfare, unions and business regulations. The job-forlife era of ‘corporation man’ came to an end. In order to survive the wild seas of neoliberalism, you had to be ruthless, ambitious and self-assured. You had to believe in yourself. It was into this surging sea of Me that the self-esteem craze arrived. It had its own roots in the Human Potential psychology movement that emerged in 1960s America and which proposed humans were inherently good and bursting with unused potential (the nonsense idea we only use 10 per cent of our brains comes from them). In order to unlock this potential, we just had to embrace our own authentic inner wonderfulness. By the ’90s, teachers and parents all over the West were raising children to believe they were amazing and unique. These were the children who grew up to be the selfie-snapping millennials. To blame millennials for their own narcissism is unfair. Every new generation is the product of the last and they’re the latest iteration of the individualist model of self that’s been evolving since Aristotle’s day. Individualism, in itself, is no bad thing; it’s the foundation of Western progress. But today’s version, warped and accelerated by neoliberalism and Human Potential/self-esteem theory, can be harmful. We’re led to believe we can be whoever we want to be and that we only need to dream big and “go for it”. These can be inspiring messages, but what do they mean when we fail? The inescapable logic is that it’s our fault, that we just didn’t give it our all. Our culture tells us we’re failures. And it’s wrong. We’re still utterly beguiled by Human Potential ideas that say humans are like gods and have the power to become whatever we like. But how can we be whoever we want to be, when who we are as an adult is mostly defined by genes and childhood experiences over which we had no control? In order to break free of the punishing messages of culture’s perfectionism, we must temper ambitions and embrace the truth of what the human biological organism really is. We’re not gods, we’re hubristic and often deluded animals. We’re imperfect, all of us. Selfie by Will Storr ($32.99); macmillan.com.au