Are we more vain today than at any point in history?

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In this existential paradigm that we all live and let die in, we have this intrinsic urge to share our lives, our love and our letters with others. This need for a social archetype, this exuberant delivery of information from soul to soul is virtually obligatory. We can’t live without sharing things, whether it’s high scores in Mario Kart, midterm exam results, the colour of our orange juice or the choice of our Instagram filters. We have this urge to tell people about various aspects of our life, and social media has tapped into this underlying, deep-seated compulsion over the last few years with precision comparable to a co-pilot’s suicidal tendencies.

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I often wonder what life was like before telephones and emails and Whatsapp and reddit; how did people really communicate? Since we’re in India, a lot of us could just ask our parents this question and have a more than satisfactory answer. The information age didn’t really arrive in the mainstream in our country till the mid-80s. My parents’ generation was just out of college, understanding the true vibrancy and colour of life when Coca-Cola and The Beatles entered public cognizance. Hypermarkets would arrive 10 years later, the first non-Hindustan Motors or Premier cars would appear 6 years later. The by-products of post-war prosperity that had consumed the West in its rich, economic embrace had yet to catch up. Before that it was much the same – computers weren’t a thing, TV had like six shows a day and telephones, if they happened to bleep into existence at your house one morning after your father’s salary cheque was cashed in, were more of a luxury than a convenience. I couldn’t imagine talking to an operator unless I served in the military or worked at the phone company.

Even before that era, before television and telephones and telegrams were a thing, before people realised you could just add the “tele” prefix to anything vaguely electronic and sell it, what did people do to share ideas? How would your ‘followers’ know what flavour iced-tea you ordered at Starbucks in 1827? How would they know about your 30 inch rims on your penny-farthing or that your new African slave knew Italian? In what narrative did that quintessentially human amour-propre exist? Why did we, as a generation, seemingly emerge from being so engrossed in the adroit expertise of the arts and sciences to being vain, consumerist sheeple? How did we go from Oscar Wilde to Jaden Smith? From Isaac Newton to Oscar Isaac? From Richard the Lionheart to David Cameron? (Okay that’s a long time-span, but bear with me; not much changes in 950 years). What was their outlet, the people who lived in the pre-Instagram days?

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And even with that seething flurry of a question, I don’t find the need to answer that. Because I don’t think people are any more vain in 2015 than they were in 1985, 1827 or 1157. The arrival of technology and social media that allows us to connect and shitpost on the internet doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t an outlet before. After all, graffiti, writing love poems, throwing stones in rivers, looking at the sky for no discernible reason, studying for IIT-JEE, these were all things you could do back in 1157 and you still can do today. I’m sure there are more 5 year olds running around the living room with no pants on right now than there was at any point in the last 2000 years; there are more people whiling away their time doing nothing, but there are also a lot more bright and interesting minds who can conquer countries and establish multi-national corporations. So I guess my point is, the advent of things like Snapchats aren’t a subtraction from our collective human spirit and resourcefulness, but an addition to it. Every time someone sends you a picture of their rich and scrumptious ice-cream, instead of imagining that they could write a wonderful villanelle instead or learn about trigonometry, imagine that they sent you that instead of falling into a well or flogging around a town designed by King Alfred.

Follow Upamanyu Acharya:

IIM Ahmedabad MBA 2021. My hobbies include being vague, bending rules, time-travel, and embellishment of words. This is my personal blog where I write on topics ranging from blockchain, to leadership skills and the consistency of jam.

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