Duck Lips Versus the Wonders of the World

We must find ways to help young people turn the cameras away from themselves

It is a poor centre of a man's actions, himself. - Sir Francis Bacon

I took an absolutely epic road trip this summer with my family. Four thousand miles in total, we drove from the American Southwest to the Pacific Northwest and back again. We stayed in the northwest for several weeks enjoying the cool air, working, and exploring the natural beauty of the area. On the way up and back we took the time to stop at several national parks. On our return trip, we spent part of the day exploring the south rim of one of the seven natural wonders of the world: the Grand Canyon.  

At one of the overlooks built by the national park service, the actions of a young woman caught my attention. She was standing at the rail with her back to the canyon and was taking one picture after another of...herself. That was strange enough. I mean, you're literally on the precipice of one of the most amazing vistas in the world and your immediate thought is to take pictures of yourself? But she wasn't just taking any old pictures, she was consistently making duck lips for the camera. There were people everywhere. It was actually a little crowded. But neither the breathtaking beauty of the location, nor the jostling crowds, distracted her from her determination to photograph herself. The Grand Canyon, I realized, was just being used as a prop. It was being put in service to some performative agenda only she knew. But whoever the intended recipient of the pictures was, they are destined to comprehend her message: One of the seven natural wonders of the world may be in the background, but look at me.

I realized later than there was something about her behavior that reminded me of ads I have seen. It is common to see sexually charged ads of one form or another. But very often in these ads, though the woman and man are engaged in what should be private behavior, the woman is looking directly into the camera. This can only be understood as some kind of attempt at the psychological manipulation of the viewer. The clear message being sent to the ad recipient must be that, though this woman is with this other man, she's really thinking about you. The producers of such ads apparently believe in the abject gullibility of their targets. Alas, one suspects that our young woman at the Grand Canyon may have been intending to create a similar, if less explicit, message with her own photographs that day. "I may be at the Grand Canyon", she seemed to be saying, "but even that can't compare with posing for your attention."

The events that day got me to thinking about the entire question of what it means to be interested in something for its own sake, versus interested in something primarily for its potential as a performative platform for drawing attention to yourself. Ultimately, what motivated me to write this post was the desire to suggest that there are benefits, immeasurable benefits, in developing interests in things outside ourselves, for their own sake, and not merely for their instrumental value as performative tools.

I started writing code over 40 years ago. Literally, the year personal computers first became a thing (1981), I wrote my first line of code. I won't say I was addicted but I was definitely fascinated by the powerful possibilities presented by the near infinite malleability of software. There was little to no temptation regarding self-promotion associated with writing software at that time. On the contrary, everyone who knew you thought you were weird, except those other weirdos who had been drawn into that same fascinating world as you.

David Gelernter put this well in the preface to his book on human consciousness titled The Tides of Mind:

"I have practiced computer science for 30 years. What drew me to the field was the unlimited plastic power of digital computers: computers give you the power to dream up almost any machine you like, shape a simple version in modeling clay, and then flip a switch and watch it come alive. This naïve-sounding vision is almost real, almost true. A good programmer can sit down at the keyboard and build a program - a working piece of software - with nearly the complexity of an aircraft carrier all by himself, to his own designs and no one else's."

Something I love about software development is the aesthetic possibility that attends software design. Elegant and beautiful designs are usually more powerful, extensible, and useful. This is not coincidental and there's too much about this phenomenon to go into now. But I will note that the symbiosis between beauty and functionality is something that has largely been forgotten in the worlds of modern art and architecture. But I digress.

In the early 1980's, the personal computer democratized software engineering by turning something expensive (access to computers) into something affordable. By doing so it drew the interest and unleashed the creative potential of thousands of geeks and nerds, many of whom (like myself) had no notion before that they were interested in computers at all. But we were drawn to software development by the sheer fascination and challenge of it. There were no credentials to be earned or plaudits to be received. Software was not, at first, a vehicle for fame or self-promotion. Or, at least, the possibilities were limited enough that no one was really drawn to it for that reason.

Forty years later much has changed. I still write code almost every day and, to be honest, for the very same reasons I started writing code in the first place. But in the intervening years, the possibilities that attend to being a software developer have changed significantly. And those changed possibilities have in some ways altered the kind of person that is drawn to the field.

One of the things I have observed is a decline in actual interest in the doing of software development, which has coincided with a rather dramatic inflation in the credentials people are acquiring before they apply for such a job. Most people I interview these days show up with PhD's, and they know how to write code, though not quite as well as one might assume. But to a surprising degree, they often don't actually enjoy software development. They don't even necessarily have a genuine interest in it. They have become involved in it entirely for instrumental reasons: they want to leverage a now prestigious skill to advance themselves in the world.

Now, there's nothing wrong with advancing on the basis of skilled work. But there is something inescapably sad about investing so many years and so much money in the acquisition of credentials for a field that you don't actually have a sincere interest in for its own sake.

The older I get the more I have come to believe that, especially in our current cultural moment, we need to be helping children and young people develop sincere interests in things that are outside of themselves. They need pursuits in their lives that interest them and which have nothing to do with self-flattery or with any other performative agenda they might be tempted to have. Having an interest in things for their own sake, or even only for the sake of pursuing excellence, is far more beneficial than being interested in things for their utility as a vehicle for self-promotion. That seems kind of obvious when you write it down and say it plainly. But then I see all the bumper stickers around which announce "My child is an honor student at such-and-such elementary" and I can't help but wonder if that child has genuine and compelling interests, or whether she is being conditioned to think of achievement merely as yet another performative activity.

I confess I am harassed by the suspicion that the girl at the Grand Canyon, taking duck lips pictures of herself, is representative of an entire changing and unhappy cultural milieu. After all, no one younger than sixteen years old has ever known a world without an iPhone. When young people have lived their entire lives conceiving of themselves as being the star of their own reality TV show, they have cut themselves off from a world of worthwhile interests. One fears they are in danger of becoming entombed by what Malcolm Muggeridge once rightly called "the deep, dark dungeon of the ego".

For the sake of their mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, we must find ways to help young people turn the cameras away from themselves.

There are some intimations of hope on this front. If you don't read anything else this week, read this essay by a young high school girl who won a teenage essay writing contest. Contestants were to write on a problem troubling American society and how that teen would address it. This young lady is wise beyond her years.  Click the picture to read her winning entry. You won't be disappointed.

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