Volume 30 Number 9
Don't Get Me Started - Darwin's Camera
By David Platt | September 2015
Every time I think that our technological world can’t get any stupider, it surprises and delights me by doing exactly that. This latest increment of human dementia involves selfies.
By a selfie, of course, I mean a photo of oneself, taken with the front-facing camera on a smartphone, framed by looking in the phone’s display. With a selfie, you never have to ask strangers to snap a photo of you in front of Brussels’s “Manneken Pis” (bit.ly/1GgLSaA) or whatever, trusting them not to run off with your cool new iPhone.
The rise of the selfie has been spectacular. Exactly four years ago I bought my first smartphone, a then-state-of-the-art Motorola Droid X2. It didn’t have a front-facing camera with which to take selfies, yet two years later, “selfie” was the word of the year for the Oxford English Dictionary. (Selfie, schmelfie. When are they going to include my coinages of hassle budget, marketingbozo, armadillo and MINFU? See my April Fools’ Day column from 2013 at msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/dn166939.)
Once you start taking selfies, you quickly find that your arm isn’t long enough to show much background. You then need a selfie stick, an extendable pole that holds the camera further out in front of you. Bloomberg named selfie sticks “the gift of the year for 2014” after 100,000 people bought them last December.
But as with any new infatuation, we don’t notice its (her, his) warts until it’s been around for a while. That’s now happening with selfies.
Selfie sticks poke people and damage things, leading many establishments to ban them. Disney Parks, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament have already taken this step. Most soccer stadiums forbid them as potential riot weapons. In South Korea, selfie sticks have to be registered, making them harder to obtain than guns in some parts of the United States. (“Selfie sticks don’t poke people’s eyes out. People poke people’s eyes out.”)
Think this is crazy? I haven’t even gotten started yet. The Russian government has noticed that its citizens are killing themselves taking ever-more-thrilling selfies. Now authorities are trying to convince selfie takers to be more careful by publishing a brochure, which you can view at the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Web site (mvd.ru/safety_selfie). How well this engages the Russian psyche I will be curious to see.
The brochure depicts all sorts of ways to kill yourself while taking a selfie, discouraged (one hopes) by the slashed-circle “No” symbol (see Figure 1). It suggests that we not take selfies while leaning out of car windows, standing in front of speeding trains, climbing electric power lines, pointing guns at our heads, standing next to hungry tigers and so on. I suspect it may be patterned after the Melbourne Metro’s “Dumb Ways to Die” video (bit.ly/1h0slTK).
Figure 1 Helpful iconography is great, but will determined selfie takers just look at it as motivation?
The paradox is obvious to us geeks. Anyone stupid enough to need a warning against taking a selfie in front of an oncoming train is probably too stupid to benefit from that warning. “D’oh! [head slap] Silly me. I was just about to climb that power pylon for my selfie, but your nice brochure showed me that I shouldn’t. Thanks, Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs!” It reminds me of Clippy’s old tip of the day in Microsoft Office 97, which would occasionally warn: “You can hurt yourself if you run with scissors.” How many lives did that actually save?
The anti-selfie campaign could actually end up raising the IQ of Earth’s population. Think about it. The stupidest people will see one of these brochures and say, “Bozhemoi, cool selfie ideas. I try one with train,” and kill themselves off. Selfies as accidental eugenics, do you suppose?
I’ll pour oil on this troubled fire, by coining new words to describe the trend of life-threatening self-snapshots. How about “fatelfie” (fatal + selfie) to describe a selfie that results in the death of the photographer. Maybe shorten it to “felfie?” To extend the idea (as always) toward absurdity, how about “Darwinelfie,” a fatelfie so stupid it comes with an automatic Darwin award (darwinawards.com)? For example: “Wow, look at the tiger’s claw puncturing the guy’s neck just as he clicks the shutter. That’s a definite Darwinelfie.”
Oxford English Dictionary, take note. I’ll be expecting the 2015 word of the year award.
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.