Misleading Visuals

I have the vivid memory of walking down the sidewalk between classes at my university. The weather was brisk, but the sun was shining through the trees, and there were a lot of us walking to our next class, all in different directions.

As I looked up, I noticed a tall, attractive man with long hair and wire-rimmed glasses, nodding smartly as he carried on a conversation that I imagined to be quite erudite. He was wearing name-brand outdoor clothing, the kind you might find have found (at the time) in a store like REI, expensive and high-quality clothing. He was wearing a scarf, and it was tied just the way a man's scarf ought to be, such that it looked both fashionable and rugged at the same time. He carried himself with an air that was both intellectual and physical. He just looked damn cool.

And he was smoking a pipe.

The pipe was an interesting touch. It was highly unusual, for all kinds of reasons. Most people don't smoke pipes, and those who do typically smoke them at home, not when they're out-and-about on a busy college campus in the morning. Even those who do carry their pipes with them would not likely be inclined to go through the rituals of pipe-smoking -- pouring out the loose tobacco leaves, packing them appropriately, lighting the pipe, and so on -- early in the school day, and especially not between 10-minute class breaks. From this, I concluded that this was a man who was committed to his idiom. He was also a relatively young man; older than my twenty years, but too young to have fallen into pipe smoking accidentally. The pipe was something he had deliberately sought out as a tobacco enthusiast. This fact, too, demonstrates commitment to the idiom.

Needless to say, the pipe was the capstone to the entire image. It absolutely cemented his outward presentation as that of a rugged, intellectual, and individualistic man.

I never met him and I never saw him again, but the image is burned into my memory. He pulled his look off very well, but in hindsight his whole image was heavily contrived. He bought his way into his idiom, and must have dedicated time as well as money toward cultivating and maintaining it. Why else would one invest, say, twenty percent of his class break time in lighting a pipe that he could hold in folded arms while he carried on intellectual conversations? Why else jaunt about campus wearing name-brand outdoor clothing on day when one's "outdoor activities" consist of moving between campus buildings during class breaks?

And, above all, why smoke? This man was an Instagram star in the making, but for the fact that there was no Instagram back then. At the time, though, I accepted his presentation whole-hog without skepticism. He must have been the rugged intellectual he presented.

Granted, there will always be those who work hard to cultivate an image. What strikes me as interesting is the fact that omnipresent cameras have helped us create a situation in which every mundane task can be presented as amazing.

A few year ago, I knew a blogger who mostly just posted updates about her family, but she had a nice camera, and she was really good at taking photos of the flower arrangement on her dining table, or the way her children would throw an arm around each other. Basically, her blog looked like a collection Martha-Stewart-branded stock photography. But their lives were far more mundane, comprised mainly of school work, hobbies, games, the occasional weekend getaway, and so on.

What do we make of the family who seems to be living the perfect life, but who is in fact just living a life. To be sure, it's a good life, but absent the latest iPhone camera, those bouquets would look just like the ones everyone else buys. The blogger I knew had a wonderful life, but that fact wasn't in any way demonstrated by a set of nice photos. If she had posted only lousy photos, her readers might have erroneously concluded that her life was miserable. But that doesn't make any sense.

We humans have created a very odd meta-problem to have: If your life is wonderful, but you struggle to take photos that look as good as your life feels, that seems to us like a shortcoming of some sort. How can you have a happy family if your family does not have any non-blurry photos taken of it? How can this woman really be attractive if she's always wearing Walmart clothes?

It's not exactly shallowness, but a tendency to reinterpret the facts based on visual cues that may or may not indicate something more. Take any plain-looking woman and put her in a skimpy bikini with a floppy sun-hat and a large pair of sunglasses, and pretty soon everyone will comment on how beautiful she is. Is she, or are we reading too much into the clothes? And suppose the problem were reversed, that nobody bothered to notice a beautiful woman because on most days she just wore a broomstick skirt and a cardigan.

I know what you're thinking: Some blog, Ryan. 2000 words just to say, "Don't judge a book by its cover." But don't blame me. My blog is designed terribly.

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