The Metaphysics of Selfies
April 19, 2016
by Jon Methven
After too many complaints from my phone that there was not enough iCloud storage, I set out to purge the digital shrapnel causing the overpopulation. This meant deleting hundreds of photos—kids, vacations and important family moments—most of which I concluded were vital.
It got me thinking: If JPEGs take up space, they must have weight. After all, memory cards get full. We cannot email certain photos that are too large. With its constant complaints of overflow, the diva iCloud seems ready to burst under the burden of our daily chronicles.
If JPEGS have weight, it would be negligible, something only measured with the most sensitive equipment. Otherwise our phones would feel like we’re carrying around bricks. But across millions of devices, snapping untold photos and storing them each day, the weight would eventually have consequences for our planet. One day, the collective mass of our selfies could cause the Earth to shift off its axis and spin out of orbit, colliding with a heavier rock as we all scramble to photograph the impact.
I had discovered a loophole in the conservation of mass, a thesis with greater implications than special relativity or quantum theory—the Selfie Epidemic. Take that, Albert Einstein.
I took my findings to the scientific community. A digital photography expert said that JPEGs are saved as semiconductor switches that are either “on” or “off”, ones and zeros, known as binary code. A picture does not add weight to a phone or memory card, rather it transforms the switches to “on”. Dr. Jeffrey Will, a computer engineer, said that a photograph turns an unordered mix of switches into an ordered mix. Any weight added, while extremely negligible, would result from electrons shifting from the battery to the camera storage.
In short, science deduced I was an idiot; digital photos have no weight. But in the same manner that Galileo was accused of heresy for claiming the Earth revolved around the sun, I maintain there is an aspect of our photographic obsession that usurps scientific capabilities, the metaphysics of our vanity. Otherwise, why is the cache of pictures we hoard on our phones so important? If nothing substantial is transferred or gained when a photo is taken, why do some cultures believe the act of photography steals the soul?
In 1901, Dr. Duncan MacDougall attempted to prove that the soul has weight. He measured patients before and after death, concluding the cadaver is slightly lighter. That implied the human spirit weighs approximately 21 grams, according to his findings, which have been widely disproven by scientists.
“You cannot weigh a soul because the concept of a ‘soul’ transcends the realm of science,” Dr. Will said. “There is an inherent limitation to what physics and subsequently engineering can measure.”
We don’t have to see things to know they exist. Gravity, electricity and WiFi are necessities. We depend on these invisible entities in the same way we depend on invisible breath for oxygen, or invisible thought to comprehend what we read.
Likewise, we don’t have to measure the weight of photographs to know they have mass. A Supermoon in a clear sky, a selfie with a best friend, a family celebration, a child’s playground accomplishment—it’s intuitive, without the aid of scientific testing, that these pictures have more mass than an empty memory card.
“An interesting way to think about the ones and zeros being reordered might not be change in physical mass,” said Professor Liz Wuerffel of Valparaiso University. “What doesn’t get coded into the ones and zeros, what isn’t measured? The difference between a good photo and a great photo could be the presence of the soul. Is the soul helping to order the ones and zeros?”
One of the problematic JPEGs taking up space on my phone is an image of my sons at the park. My oldest has just told a joke. My youngest stares in amazement, as he often does at his big brother. There is a combination of innocence and camaraderie in the black and white features as they laugh hard at something long forgotten, an immeasurable force inside the ones and zeroes. It’s a simple, weightless semiconductor switch. It’s the heaviest thing I own.