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Selfie sticks and terror: The moral dysfunction of bearing witness in 2017

Jennifer Good is an Associate Professor of Communication, Popular Culture and Film, at Brock University.

In the frenzied moments following the London terror attack, a familiar phenomenon occurred: a man started taking selfies. A photo of the bearded and sunglassed man is taken on Westminster Bridge, holding up a selfie stick and snapping a shot of himself with a line of yellow ambulances in the backdrop. "Just moments before he attempted to take the snap, a police officer was stabbed and his apparent attacker was shot by officers," a Metro article points out.

Welcome to the 21st century, where we must insert ourselves into an event, no matter how terrible. This is now how we bear witness in our digital-obsessed world: "Pics or it didn't happen," so they say.

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The fiercely self-righteous responses immediately exploded on Twitter. In the "selfie stick London" Twitter feed, the vitriol for the selfie-taking man was swift. The insults hurled are mostly unpublishable, and the suggestions for what could be done to him with his selfie stick are similarly vivid and violent. Many of these comments have been re-tweeted hundreds of times. One printable tweet offers that "this photo is everything that is wrong with humanity."

In 1948, communication researchers Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton were also worried about humanity and developed a media effects concept they called "narcotizing dysfunction." Narcotizing dysfunction proposed that the "vast supply of communications" available in the mid-20th century would render humans "apathetic and inert" – able to develop only "superficial concern with the problems of society." The authors acknowledged that the flow of mediated content "lifted the level of information of large populations," but they worried that the sheer quantity of information might be "inadvertently transforming [people's] energies … from active participation to passive knowledge."

Mr. Lazarsfeld and Mr. Merton could not have imagined the digitally obsessed age in which we live. Nobody could have envisioned the quantity and forms of mediated information that have grown exponentially in the past 69 years. But even so, in some ways the scholars got it right. The quantity of media we consume has had a narcotizing effect, but not in the way they worried. Their concern was that the media would deaden us and we would stop being active agents in the world. We would become passive, addicted consumers.

The digital age has instead ushered in an age of media hyperactivity. We have more choices of outlets from which to devour mediated fare and more opportunities to become involved in the production of mediated content. But this activity should not be confused with avoidance of mediated communication's addictive narcotizing effect.

The endless hours of screens and barrage of content has narcotized us – not into passivity, but into a frenzied and unthinking state.

We do not need to sit and idly watch the news on a screen. We can take the screen with us and it can tell us that people have been mowed down on a nearby bridge; we can then rush over with a selfie stick and add our face to the scene of death and devastation. And when our screen shows us the man with his selfie stick, it's natural to immediately churn out ever more offensive tweets in response: to interject a plea to "look at me." Everyone hungers for likes, for re-tweets, for attention – even when, as in London, the moment calls for quiet mourning, deep reflection and concern for the world.

No, the media's narcotizing dysfunction did not render us inert. Our narcotized state is active and often exceedingly socially and morally dysfunctional.

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Video: The Globe in London: Even as the city is getting back to life, Britain has been shaken (The Globe and Mail)
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