Sunday, June 24, 2012
Instagram and the Emotional Void
During my morning elevator ride to my Washington DC office, which takes at most 30 seconds, I am exposed nearly every day to one of the more serious impacts of our obsession with technology: our acute revulsion to even brief socialization. If someone else joins me in the elevator, they will invariably begin frantically fumbling for their smart phone. No doubt to check for emails or text messages that might have accumulated since the last time they checked, several minutes ago.
Smart phones have become modern day leashes, keeping us tethered to others in a way that forgoes intimacy for the sake of instant connection. The notion of an in-person interaction with a stranger has become foreign, something we have almost come to dread, even one as brief as an elevator ride in a city where no building can be taller than the Washington Monument.
It has gotten to the point now where people will actually hit the 'Close Door' button on the elevator control panel, even when they know someone might be approaching who wants a lift. I don't think this is done out of any sense of rudeness per se, but rather because being rude has now become preferable to being forced to make eye contact and perhaps say hello.
But on the iPhones and Droids that we use as social crutches, there lies what may well be the seeds of a revolution, in the guise of a free app known as Instagram.
For the uninitiated, Instagram is a photography app that applies gauzy filters to digital photographs, turning them instantly into images that one might expect to find in an attic, or in your mother's scrap book that she pulls out whenever you bring a date over to the house. The real version of these photographs, that is the ones you actually would find in an attic, might feature your Uncle Bob in a tank-top, with a Schlitz in his hand sitting in the backyard during a summertime pool party. He might be wearing too high shorts and a Cheaters Gentlemen's Club hat with the mesh in the back. The photo is yellowed from age, but is also washed out from the sun of that warm day, 30 years ago.
These days, we rarely even print our photos, but rather just post them to Facebook or peruse them on our phones, reducing their tangibility and their ability to age gracefully. We have fantastic photograph technology right at our fingertips: many people's best camera is built right into their smart phone, but there is often something lacking from our photographic efforts, something those Instagram photos attempt to replace.
But the warmth in those old photos isn't in their age or in their imperfect visual quality, but in the connection they provide us to a time when we actually spoke to each other, when our relationships were meaningful in a way that cannot be replicated in the emotional and contextual vacuum of a 140 character status update or even in an online photo album.
Is it possible that Instagram is our not-altogether subconscious effort to replicate a time before technology dominated and defined every waking moment of our lives? It used to be said that a picture spoke a thousand words, do today's Instagram photos even have a story to tell, or are they just fabrications of an emotional reality that has ceased to exist, but that we cling to longingly?