When I first came across the British journalist Will Storr’s new book, my immediate thought was “Thank fuck”.
Thank fuck, I thought, someone is going to explain why we live in an age when people think it’s OK to take loads of pictures of their own face. Thank fuck, I thought, someone has noticed how self-infatuated we’ve all become. Thank fuck, I thought, I’m not the only one who is worried about how this warped sense of importance is changing how we feel about ourselves and others.
But Storr’s Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed And What It’s Doing To Us answered these questions (and more) in a far more sophisticated way than my lazy millennial-bashing. Over lunch in London, he told me: “This didn’t start with millennials – this is all obviously part of a longer story, but I wasn’t expecting it to go as far back as the Greeks!”
We don’t like to think about our limitation, we don’t like this idea that self-esteem might be fixed, because it feels anti-progressive – but it’s the truth
Yep, the starting point with our obsession with the self began over two and half thousand years ago, according to Storr (although it really doesn’t sound that long ago when Storr points out that the Greeks believed being physically beautiful implied being ethically sound, too).
From the ambition and expansion of the self in Ancient Greece, the book jumps to the Christianity of the Middle Ages. After this, we find ourselves in the 20th century, encountering the individuals (mostly men) who have manipulated and shaped our sense of self – from Freud’s disgust at the desires of the unconscious to the hippies learning to love themselves out in the Californian wilderness of the 1960s. Finally, Storr takes us, via the birth of neoliberalism and the ruthless ambition for economic self-sufficiency in the 70s and 80s, right through to the teen influencers of today who sell their “selves” on social media. And, lastly, to Silicon Valley, populated by the world’s most powerfully, notoriously self-driven.
No doubt it’s a hugely ambitious book that might sound overwhelming, but is told with a humanity and vulnerability that is, thankfully, deeply at odds with many of its characters. This is not a tome explaining the world – it’s the honest voice of one man asking how the fuck we got *here* – a time when everything feels broken, when we all feel like a pinball, tirelessly bouncing between binaries of right and wrong, us and them, black and white. A time when countries are run as businesses; when there are alarmingly high rates of depression among young people; and young women aspire to be YouTube stars. Storr’s Selfie is a fascinating investigation into the intersection of history, psychology, culture and the economy, and how our brains, our egos – and our constructed sense of self – are products of these interconnecting spaces.
In the middle of all this is 42-year-old journalist Storr. Cynical, yes; paranoid, by his own admission; probing and insightful, unquestionably. Over lunch, Storr tells me he’s been looking for answers his whole life and not just in his day job. He describes his childhood as “English” – a substitute for the word one therapist used: “loveless”. He acted out growing up; drinking, taking drugs, getting in trouble with the police. Years of therapy didn’t really help. All he knew – all he kept being told by therapists and books and professionals – was that at the root of everything was his low-self esteem, caused by his upbringing, causing him a lifetime of agony.
So, it’s easy to imagine why, a few years ago, when Storr was commissioned to write a story on a man called Roy Baumeister, an American social physiologist, who basically called bullshit on the prevalence of self-esteem as the be-all and end-all to human happiness, Storr was fascinated. It turns humans into aggressive egomaniacs, Baumeister observed, not perfectly content humans. And through his research, Storr came across another man: politician John Vasconcellos, the man who, as Storr spent a year investigating and uncovering, pretty much made up the notion that self-esteem is a good thing for humans (that chapter alone deserves its own Netflix documentary).
And this is Storr’s starting point: the story Storr had been told his whole life – the reason for all the things he found difficult in life – was false. He discovered Professor Daniel Nettle, a personality psychologist at the University of Newcastle, who confirms that, no, we feel the way we do mostly because of our genetic make-up and the chemicals in our brains. “It’s true that your upbringing has an effect,” Storr tells me, “but what isn’t true is that it can be fixed – you can fix it a little bit, you can shift this way or that way – but the idea we can transform who we are is not true.”
Now, obviously, Storr is not the only one who has been told self-esteem is the key to happiness – we all have. “Love yourself!” Oprah would yell to a studio audience as she gave them a candle and car. And while history has continued to centralise the place of the self in society, in the 1980s Vasconcellos, a man with political ambition and a lot of bad science, told us that self-esteem was the preservation of the self.
And, in Storr's opinion, this has had disastrous consequences.
“We think we can be anything and do anything, but we’re not gods – we’re animals,” he says. “We are limited by our biology and I think the human potential movement has given us this culture where we are in denial of our biology – especially in the West. We don’t like to think about our limitation, we don’t like this idea that self-esteem might be fixed, because it feels anti-progressive – but it’s the truth. And,” he adds, “I don’t think it’s a negative message because we can stop beating ourselves up.”
Of course, nobody knows more about beating themselves up than women – the crystallisation of self-esteem as the crown of human existence has sent women on a lifelong journey for perfection, cruelly exploited for profit. “Feel good about yourself by buying a cream that will make you look 12 and be accepted by a society that idolises youth and perfection!” says every advert ever. We’re as bad as the Greeks. Except at least the Greeks didn’t have Instagram. (As Storr says, it’s not tech that’s making us awful – we are inherently wired for this stuff. When selfie sticks were launched in 2010, they were called “front-facing cameras”. They were meant for Skype.)
Meanwhile, even if we have the self-awareness to know we’re all part of this big consumerist cycle to buy and build our self-worth, we can’t help falling for the carefully laid trap. “Even if we recognise this is ridiculous,” Storr says, “unconsciously you still believe it because we’re social animals; we're obsessed with status.” And he’s right. When I look at skinny girls’ Instagram accounts, I chastise myself, but I still wonder why I'm not that thin/pretty/on a beach etc.
Reading Selfie is like seeing links light up on a switchboard. Everything is connected; everything makes sense
It’s not just the insights that makes Selfie such an essential read; Storr is a master weaver – not only can he draw a line via Ancient Greece and Silicon Valley, but he does so between Ronald Reagan’s rampant deregulation, the toxic nature of the American governmental pursuit of individualism and young women’s Instagram accounts.
Take the rise of the influencer: “Be your own boss, like Zoella!” young women are now told and sold as #thedream (because then the state won’t have to worry about you); “Achieve success on your own terms!” #girlboss (because no one is going to invest in you now); “Connect with your community!” (who are just followers who we can exploit to sell things to via you). Reading Selfie is like seeing links light up on a switchboard. Everything is connected; everything makes sense.
Yet the most incredible thing about Storr’s book is how it stays with you long after you've read it. The drip-drip-dripping of the promotion of the self, the chip-chip-chipping away at us is everywhere to see. Just look at Trump and Travis Kalanick – surely, they are the Frankenstein’s monster of the pursuit of the self? In both an equally troubling and comforting way, Selfie’s insights can’t been unseen.