I was hanging out at Sacramento’s Hyatt pool when I became a witness to our new culture of taking selfies. There was a young couple there, probably in their early twenties. They had ordered drinks and some food to have by the pool. She was wearing a colorful bikini and red lipstick (waterproof?). He was in his print swim shorts.

When the drinks arrived, this is what they did, in the following order:
She took out her phone. (It was a white smartphone.)
He moved his lounge chair closer to the right. She asked him to approve her makeup.
They leaned in together and picked up their drinks. She held hers – cherry on top – in her right hand. He, sitting to her left, lifted his – salt on the rim – with his left hand.
In that moment, they had composed the perfect picture.

She then picked up her phone and held it up. Without further communication, they started to smile in the same moment.

She took a few shots without checking how the previous ones turned out. How do I know? They froze their smiles for a second or two every time, then shifted their facial expressions slightly – tilted their heads closer, showed more teeth, tried to really smile so it would show in their eyes, too. A few times, an unexpectedly monotone “wait one sec lemme take that again” left her red lips, which made them hold their expressions until she had refocused her phone’s camera lens, and tapped the button another time.

When they were done taking pictures, they put down the drinks and the girl uploaded them to her social media account. The boy looked over her shoulder. They picked up their drinks and toasted, finally took a sip, then put them down to check her phone. “Four likes!”

What happened here? A couple created their memory before it happened.

Malinowski with natives, 1918

Ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski with natives on the Trobriand Islands, 1918 (source: Wikipedia)

French cultural philosopher Roland Barthes theorized in the Sixties that photography was the trace of the Has-Been. Photography, according to Barthes, captures time and the temporary, fleeting character of our existence, and creates a “trace” of it – back then, that would have been a photograph’s negative. The souls of the subjects, captured – not unlike the fear of tribal communities at their encounter of early anthropologists.

If Barthes was right, then the wide distribution of smartphone technology and the resulting selfie culture is taking the eeriness of capturing the temporary nature of life to a whole new level. While analogue photography points only to what has been, digital photography has transformed our perception of the present: our digital generation now spots the Will-Have-Been of a given moment even before it occurs.

Adorno's selfie

Cultural Philosopher Theodor W. Adorno was one of the first famous people to take selfies. (image source: Pinterest)

We set the stage for our life, or at least for what we want it to look like. We preselect the moments we will want to remember, we compose the picture in our mind. We LIVE in that moment – before we even take the picture that will serve as proof that all that glory really happened.

Will we remember if the drinks by the pool will have actually been any good? What about the conversations we will have had while enjoying that weekend away together?

Our generation has created a new awareness of the Future Perfect tense. What in its beginnings was a sorry expression of “I don’t have any friends who I could ask to take a picture of me” has been glamorized in the last years: Hollywood stars take selfies at the Oscars, while surrounded by professional photographers. Formerly all serious-looking authors now take selfies and post them in their “About me” category on their websites. Heck, even President Obama takes selfies.

The Oxford Dictionary voted selfie as the word of the year 2013 – not just because it’s a new addition to our shared vocabulary, and not just because it has become such a popular word to use in vastly different contexts. The selfie now also signifies a unique contribution of our times: How we see the present not just for what it is, but also for all that it will have been.