I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Will Storr yesterday as he travelled to Amsterdam to speak about his latest book ‘Selfie: How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us’. Talking about his book he walked the audience through his journey to capture the anthropology of individualism, a trait that is seen as quintessentially western. The Greeks, he argued, had to become more individualistic because they lived in an environment that demanded this of them. Greece was never a country where you could grow crops, a practice that usually worked best with a team. When the Greek individuals were unable to find such opportunities, they had to instead rely on their lone selves and become entrepreneurs and business persons. This, in return, demanded from them more self-discovery of skills, self-sustenance, highlighting of innate capabilities and only those who were truly able to fall down, fail, and rise up on their own, managed to succeed. Hence, with time, this became a defining trait of the populace and continues to define the western culture even today.
But, Will argued, while the approach helps you to better survive alone, it also handicaps you. In the chapter titled ‘The Perfectible Self’, will cites numerous ‘focal fish’ studies done to prove this point. In one study, students from Kyoto University, Japan, and students from University of Michigan, US, were shown the same video of a pond with several similar fishes and one unique brightly coloured fish. After the video, they were asked about what they had observed. According to the findings of the interview, the Japanese students saw the pond and focused on the group identity of the similar fish, feeling bad for the outsider whereas the students from the US focused on the brightly coloured fish and emphasised its uniqueness. Similar experiments revealed how the concept of selfie differs amongst the cultures with East Asian population preferring to have group selfies than just having pictures of themselves.
These ‘seeing different worlds’ also translates into the attitudes of people. Most of the western rulers (as depicted in Greek statues) were chiseled embodiments of perfection with heads held high, giving off an obvious vibe of arrogance. On the contrary, images of, say, Confucius, reveal statements and postures depicting humbleness and kindness. Clearly, the fact that the Western society is now taking a U-turn and insisting on modesty in leadership grooming and personal relationship reveals how the original concepts are falling short from working. No wonder the West seems to become flushed with their admiration for the simplicity and pacifism of Gandhi, something relatively abundant in many forms and shades in the eastern culture.
I asked two questions from Will both of which, he admitted, he could not answer. For now, let’s focus on the second one given I already shed light on that in my column two weeks ago. I asked Will if I was too cynical and needed therapy to recognise that most of my single friends back in Finland who had dogs as pets were basically running away from dealing with the complex nature of human interaction. I argued that there is nothing more gratifying than a dog jumping in joy behind a close door as you approach it. Nothing oils one’s ego as much as the love a dog gives without asking for any in return. The amount of pride one experiences as they see themselves more capable and responsible for taking care of a dependent being is matchless. And when these people are exposed to the more complicated world of humans with their moodiness, expectations and demands, these people seem to run away. Hence, they’d rather enjoy brief, superficial interactions with ‘friends’, usually seeking help of alcohol to ‘take their mind off’, than to ground themselves and really discuss the complex, murky, grey and ugly world of insecurities, whims and guilty consciences. And this, I concluded, makes an endless cycle where one simply becomes incapable of loving others and only loving themselves.
Will agreed with my analysis and admitted that he too was one of the same breeds. ‘I have two dogs’, he told me. ‘And I’m closer to them then my siblings. My brothers irritate the hell out of me’. As to my question of it becoming an endless cycle, he admitted pets were easy way out and the society will question these norms when it reaches the pinnacle of loneliness.
In a captivating talk elsewhere, Anthony Robbins recognises that Love is a basic human need however, most give up on love and settle only for connection. It is this connection that, to me, exemplifies the trendiness of today. From jacking up facebook friends to sending acronym birthday wishes, we I fear, will reach a point where even connections will become unnecessary. That would be a horrible way to live, for humans at least. For androids and robots though, it will be more efficient. Maybe, efficiency is that all that really matters at the end.
The writer is working as a health economist in a think-tank based in Islamabad.