Almost every generation has accused the previous one of being vain and shallow, but it is hard not to take that view looking at the young people, mainly from Japan and Korea currently swarming over Oxford. But this strange cult of Narcissism is a global phenomenon, at least in the developed parts of the globe, and no one escapes.
Two thirds (66 percent) of Brits now own a smartphone. Over the last twelve months the British have taken 1.2billion selfies. According to the latest Ofcom report on communications data, 31% of UK adults admit to having taken a photo of themselves in the last year, with 10% people admitting to turning the camera on themselves at least once per week.
Even the respectable magazine, The Bookseller, recently referred to glamour model Kim Kardashian’s vanity project, Selfish, a book of photographs of herself as, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ for the Instagram generation.’ So snapping yourself is now the equivalent of a carefully structured humorous novel which sought to encapsulate youth culture.
Everyday I see the multi-national young moving en mass over the ancient streets of Oxford, laced, girded and swaddled in cameras and extruding selfie-sticks like extra limbs. I’ve seen them in the Christ Church gardens surrounded by lush gardens and uncultivated meadow, not to mention fascinating Old English cows, using rows of cameras on poles, somehow stuck together in a long row. They grin into them fixedly and I always wonder, can they really be that happy? After all, they are in Christ Church meadow, but they could be anywhere. They’ve travelled all this way to do something they could equally well do at home.
The BBC tracked down the inventor of the selfie stick. One Hiroshi Ueda, a former engineer at Japanese camera firm Minolta whose patent for what he called, ‘the extender stick’ ran out in 2003. A story of vision and disappointment which must surely equal that of Frank Whittle and the jet engine.
Inside the cathedral children from the land of the rising sun go on snapping away at everything and nothing, mostly not the building or its artifacts but themselves. Last week I saw what I took to be a young Japanese man and his girlfriend who had climbed over some ropes which meant no entry, to take photos of themselves and he of her, up by the High Altar. In front of that vivid backdrop she posed, pouted and struck sexy poses. I happened to be sitting there, waiting for a friend who was chaplain in charge that day, who was due to say a few prayers from a pulpit, jutting incongruously out over an aisle full of kids taking photos of themselves.
‘This is a cathedral,’ I said the youth who was squatting down, camera ready, as his girl lay on the church floor in a writhing position. He looked around and saw me. I said it again.
Oh. No photo?’ he said in broken English. ‘No,’ I said, ‘It’s just that is is a, a,’ I fought for simple words to convey my meaning without saying the word, ‘sacred,’ which is now almost taboo in English. ‘A quiet place.’
He looked blank. I think he could only understand English in terms of photography. I was rescued from this situation by a warden bustling up and hustling them both away.
‘I don’t know what it is,’ she said, ‘the way they behave in here. Snapping away, jumping in the air, screaming and laughing.’
They were indeed a very mysterious swarm. Why do they want to take photos of themselves and each other inside ancient, sacred places, although they don’t know that the places are ancient and sacred? Those concepts mean nothing to them. Or perhaps they do know about those things but don’t care.
This leads to another worrying idea. Whenever I go abroad I visit churches, cathedrals and temples. I have never see bad behaviour going on inside them. When I was in India and Bhutan two years ago I had temples and vast wooden monasteries up to the limit of my endurance. Inside I never saw anyone behaving in any way less than reverent and respectful. Westerners particularly are desperate not to offend local sensitivities and love taking their shoes off.
Why is global selfie-culture at its zenith over here with us, but not there – as if British culture and tradition are now part of a commercial theme-park or playground with no meaning or value.