At the Montgomery Hill Observatory of Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, California, there is a public stargazing night on the first or the second Friday of every month. It is here that a decade ago I first saw Saturn through the observatory’s 7” refractor telescope. I will never forget that magical moment: The “Lord of the Rings” planet 750 million miles or so away from the earth that seemed so inviting that I wanted to reach out and touch it.
With Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Saturn gracing the night sky now, I decided to visit the observatory after a hiatus to renew my acquaintance with the storied planets.
About fifty of us gathered at the observatory recently to take in the beauty of the starry sky. The line was long at the domed building that housed the telescope focused on Saturn.
What I witnessed, however, was unexpected and, frankly, shocking.
Most of the “stargazers” spent more time taking selfies than looking at the planet. Parents held their babies close to the telescope and snapped photos as the unnatural light of their smartphones lit up the dark interior of the building. They photographed the telescope’s view of Saturn, experimenting until the image was to their satisfaction.
What I found incongruous was that everyone acted as if this was normal, that unless Saturn was captured in the circuitry of their hi-tech gadgets, the physical experience of observing the ringed planet through a telescope wasn’t worth much.
It was the same with Jupiter in the adjacent roll-off roof building. Jove and his moons took a backseat to the selfies, to the document-by-camera excitement that gripped so many of the visitors. A remark I overheard put the selfies in perspective. A man turned to his spouse and said, “It’s already on Facebook and Instagram.”
The standalone selfie was apparently not worth much by itself, unless authenticated by social media and “liked.”
I managed to see Saturn, its ring tilted at a steeper angle than when I saw it last, magical and awe-inspiring as always. But the flash and whirr of the cameras seemed so pervasive that afterwards, when I looked up with unaided eyes outside, I half-expected to see the image of a partially-eaten translucent silver apple dominating the night sky.
The selfie syndrome is everywhere, not just at public events and tourist spots but in parks, woods, shores, malls, stadiums, restaurants, museums, even at graveyards and funerals!
How is it that we have so casually surrendered substance to shadow, real to virtual? Why are we so in thrall to our devices 24×7?
One reason is that smart gadgets and social media allow us to unleash our very human instinct for self-expression to a degree unprecedented in history.
But pushed to extreme, self-expression can devolve into narcissism. In the presence of the sublime and the transcendent, however, self-expression through selfies, rather than engagement through the senses, can be absurd and short-sighted. It is like ignoring the eternal for the ephemeral.
How to subdue this abnormal selfie craving? One way would be to renew our acquaintance with nature.
“The world is too much with us,” lamented Wordsworth at the dawn of the 19th century when the poet felt that people had lost their connection to nature because of their growing attachment to materialism. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in nature that is ours/…/For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”
Next time we go to the woods, the shore or the observatory, let’s leave behind the devices with the flickering screens so we can experience with our five senses the music of the songbirds, the wonder of tide pools, the lullaby of the surf, and the pageantry of the planets and the stars.