I’ve been thinking for a while about the age of facebook. The world of status updates, relationship statuses, of tagging photos, and the world of “bar photos.” It’s an aspect of the modern world that irritates me. And yet, I have a facebook account! So it’s an aspect of the modern world that irritates me, but then further irritates me because I’m a part of it. (Imagine Underground Man dialogues and arguments and self-contradiction. Oh, he hates the sentimental, but he longs for it!)
I’ve been trying to nail down exactly why and how it all irritates me for a while now, but it wasn’t until I was on a bumpy marshrutka to Tbilisi a few weeks ago, irritated that people kept shutting my window, that I had a good moment of clarity. I had to scribble it down, because those moments of good insight come fleetingly. So my notes are illegible, but I think I can trace their main thread.
I think the main irritant for me is that in the world of facebook and digital photography, people live less for the experience itself, and more for enhancing their digital lives. The world of facebook takes on a reality of its own, and it often feels like people put a staggering amount of time and effort into this pseudo reality. The real world can often feel like a stage where people live out their lives focusing on enhancing their online lives.
There are a few classic examples of how this manifests itself. It bugs me when people talk about facebook. I’m a bit surprised – what?! You’re not ashamed of being on facebook? – whenever people mention things they read. And then people talk about their “relationship status.” It becomes an important thing. Oh did you see? So-and-so went from “in a relationship” to “it’s complicated!” Oh my god, no, I wonder what happened! It’s one thing to talk about people going out or whatever, but whenever I hear people gossiping using facebook lingo I can’t really believe my ears.
Then there’s the issue of digital photos and “tagging” yourself or your friends in photos. I made a trip to Svaneti, which is a really remote mountain region in Georgia near the border with Russia. I went with some of the dormitory staff. The trip itself was another story (a brief reunion with my Pakistani friend,) but it was exceptionally strange because it seemed like a trip based solely on taking photos of the trip, to show that we had gone on the trip. We’d drive around for a while, then pile out of the car and many in our group would pose for photographs. Serious poses and pouts (I find posing for photos, even adopting a smile, a bit ridiculous. Why don’t you just look normal?) Then in the car, out came mirrors to check makeup, and off to the next place to pose for photos. In the meantime I was on this trip, observing it all, and a bit curious about what was going on. Nobody was self-conscious that all the photos were superficial poses, and there wasn’t one natural shot. It wasn’t even a great day for taking photos, it was foggy and grey! I was also a bit confused because we drove up there for 6-7 hours over the worst roads I’ve ever seen, spent a few hours taking photos, and then got back in the car and drove back. I had thought we’d be spending the night and would go exploring the next day and actually see some things. Alas, I was mistaken. We didn’t actually spend time exploring in Svaneti, but just took pictures showing that we had been there. Everyone shared the same photos, so in two days time, naturally, the same photos were on facebook multiple times.
And then there are the bar/nightclub photos. They are all the same! A bunch of people dancing, or a bunch of people sitting in a bar. Sometimes the scene or the people change, but often not. So it seems that you’re going out to the bar/club with friends so you can document it. Living the experience for the purpose of documenting it to look at it later, to see how much fun you were having.
A Sidenote on photography… Digital technology has fundamentally changed the way we take photos. On one hand, it’s cool because everyone can be a photographer. Cameras are cheap, and with photoshop, everyone can create their own nice photos. On the flipside, though, photography as art deteriorates, I think, when it becomes so widespread.
But photography used to be with film and developing photos. Rolls of film had 24 shots I think, and you paid for each roll of film, and paid to have them developed. This meant that you took photos carefully; you didn’t waste photos. But today, you can take hundreds of pictures in a single afternoon, and most of them are identical. The time and effort involved in taking photos has diminished, and with it, the value ascribed to individual photos is vanishing as well.
The photo as object is almost nonexistent now. The idea of a photo album is a thing of the past. I’ve been thinking about the value of concrete “things” lately. I’ve been reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence lately, which deals with the importance of material objects, that within objects exists a well of memories and emotions. There’s a sort of eternality within objects, within the chain of memories that emerge when you’re holding a pen, or putting on a certain shirt or something. The way a deck of cards evokes the world of a summer a few years back. I like used books and used bookstores; I like to think of the people whose eyes traced these words before mine did. If each object contains an eternity of memories within it, think of all of the memories floating around in a used bookstore or little antique shop! It makes your head spin. Here’s an excerpt from the Museum of Innocence:
“By now I no longer needed to pick up the objects accumulated in the Merhamet Apartments; I had only to see them once and I could remember the past Fusun and I had shared, the evenings we had spent together at the dinner table. I had associated each and every object – a porcelain salt shaker, a tape measure in the form of a dog, a can opener that looked like an instrument of torture, a bottle of the Batanay sunflower oil that the Keskin kitchen never lascked – with a particular moment, and as the years passed, it seemed as if these remembered moments expanded and merged into perpetuity. And so looking at any of the things gathered in the Merhamet Apartments, even to only remember them, was like looking at the cigarette butts: one by one, they would recall the particles of experience until I had summoned up the entire reality of sitting at the dinner table with Fusun and her family.”
So back to the idea of photos and photo albums as objects laden with memory and meaning, I think that this is something that is very sad with the world of digital photography. The disappearance of the photograph as object… the disappearance of having old photo albums that you can pull out and flip through the pages. Sitting down at a table and talking about them – let’s see, when would this have been taken? Oh, right, back in such and such year, when we were living in x place… Each photo had a story, each object had it’s own history and past – a world that would be evoked in talking about the picture. But now when digital photos are viewed on a screen, I think there’s a certain intimacy that’s lost. The same kind of thing is happening with books, as well. A lot of people are reading e-books now, Kindles or whatnot. Little screens with thousands of books on them. But I like my beaten up paperbacks! A lot of my weight whenever I travel is from the big dense paperbacks I lug around everywhere. It would make more sense to buy a Kindle, but I couldn’t bring myself to it. I need the physical object. I need to flip through the pages, underline passages and mark the pages.
And now I’ve gone horribly off topic. I believe I had been writing about experiencing things not for the sake of the experience, but for the sake of documenting the experience and enhancing one’s digital life.
This same sense of experiencing something not for the experience itself, but for reliving it later, is something I’ve been thinking about with regard to travel as well. I’ve met a number of expat circles in my travels, and there are inevitably the expat writers. People who read about the expat scene in Paris in the 20s and 30s, and want to recreate that scene of literary talent. There are so many (misunderstood) expats who say they are writers, but so few of them appear to have anything original about them. The thought of travel isn’t even very original, it’s just traveling like their favorite writers did, trying to recreate something similar. (No insult meant to any of my writer friends. You’re all original, yeah?)
But then I’m no different. I’d love to write. That’s sort of what I do. I write in my journal, and it’s only when traveling that I feel like I have anything to say, because it’s only when I’m traveling that anything interesting happens to me. I’d love to be able to write fiction or something that were of some importance, some value. When I’m wandering around aimlessly, just thinking my thoughts, I can’t help but feel like Miller wandering around Paris (well, I guess in a way…) Or like my weekends of sleeping in abandoned buildings and hitchhiking, I can’t help but feel like Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, my own little On the Road experience, and I think about it in those terms at the time too. Why is that? Is still experiencing it for the sake of it, or am I living my experiences only in terms of the books I’ve read, trying to recreate characters or scenarios? Do I lack originality in the way I live then, too? Am I unable to live for the experience itself, or am I only copying the way that others have gone before me?
And I don’t have answers to any of these questions. Just some thoughts, rants, things that irritate me. Facebook, digital photography, silly people I meet traveling… But then I’m a part of each one of those. I’m on facebook. I take photos with my digital camera and I don’t print them out or create photo albums. And sometimes I wonder if I only travel to be like the great writers of the past. Hmm…