Mirrors, cameras and cultural evolution

It's safe to say that everyone reading this has seen an accurate reflection in a mirror. Everyone you know has seen their face in a mirror as well.

A thousand years ago (a nanosecond in evolutionary time) virtually no one had.

Mirrors are a big deal. Elephants and primates have been shown to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror, and the idea of self-image is one of the cornerstones of our culture. Hard to imagine walking through the world without knowing what you look like.

Fascinating aside: When we see a famous person in the mirror, our perception changes.

I hope we can agree that in 2013, anyone who gets uncomfortable around mirrors, who says mirrors aren't their thing, who tries to avoid a job where they might see a mirror–that person is a bit outside the mainstream.

Cameras are mirrors, but unlike the momentary glimpse of the traditional mirror, they are permanent, and now the web amplifies them. Do you see how many people pose for snapshots? The unnatural posture, the fake smile… there's anxiety here, and it's because unlike seeing ourselves in the mirror, we're being captured, forever. Multiply this fear by the million people who might see this photo on Instagram…

No one gets tense in front of mirrors any longer. Experienced professionals don't get tense in front of cameras, either.

It probably used to be okay to say, "mirrors freak me out," or to assert that they contained demons. No longer. It certainly wasn't uncommon for cultures to resist cameras at first, and to take the phrase, "take a picture," quite literally. This resistance is also dying out and almost gone.

And yet… And yet we still freeze up when someone takes a picture, we hold our breath before we go on stage, we give away our deepest insecurities when someone puts us on video…

Mirrors and cameras each took a generation or more to catch on as widespread foundations of our culture. It's not surprising, then, that so many people fear social media. It's about us, and when we're on the hook, in front of people we can't know or trust, we hold back.

For a while.

And then we don't.