If I want to take the 10-year challenge (and I don’t), I only have to look to the drawer where I keep my old passports. There, documented in roughly 10-year intervals, are excruciatingly objective photographs of my past selves, staring out at me with the same nervous eyes that have stared at humorless border guards for almost four decades. Taken together, they capture all the cliches of aging: A kid in his 20s, looking for romance on other continents; a young professional in his 30s feeling self-important about his first real job; and then some relative of my current self, a man in his mid-40s (when the passport was new), working his way through the bucket list.
Of course the 10-year challenge — the posting to social media of two portraits, taken at an interval of 10 years, to show the impact of aging — is a game, perhaps an innocent one. But it animates many of the worst things about social media and the culture it is crafting. If it is a game, then what does it mean to win it? To have aged well, perhaps so imperceptibly that all one’s friends and acquaintances post flattering comments: “Why, you haven’t a changed a bit!”
It plays into our narcissism, and our competitive instincts, and it is little different from a game of “Hot or Not,” but for old people on Facebook who know their friends will be kind if not truthful. It encourages malice and feeds our appetite for schadenfreude (“The years haven’t been kind to him . . .”). It abets the industries of youthfulness, purveyors of wrinkle creams and Botox and cosmetic surgeons. It is also curiously moralistic with its implicit assumption that we have a duty to ourselves to keep our carcass in good shape. And it awakens atavistic beliefs about morality and the body, as if our face, like the painting in Dorian Gray’s old schoolroom, is a physical record of our deeds. Is that, perhaps, why so many of the images posted as part of the challenge feel strangely like mug shots submitted for juridical evaluation?
It also distorts our understanding of how time affects us. Illness and death are physical, but aging is an intellectual and emotional process, and it can’t be captured in photographs. If one separates aging from mortality (the two are connected, but not identical), then aging loses most of its fearsome aspect. It is, one hopes, about wisdom and the gathering of maturity, the resilience that comes from loss and grief, and the deepening of ties to the people and things we love.
In Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” there is a haunting scene in which a woman of a certain age, who is enjoying perhaps her last great love affair, recounts how, at night, she walks the halls of her palace and stops the clocks from ticking. The music grows quiet and thin, not just to imitate the silence of the stilled clocks, but to tell us that it is in these moments when we encounter time intimately and in deep privacy that we are most attuned to ourselves. “One must not be afraid of it,” she says to her adolescent boyfriend.
Of course, social media games like these are all about digital engagement. They help convey the illusion that media platforms like Instagram and Facebook are as old as we are, that their history is conterminous with our own. We are encouraged to think of this very recent and possibly ephemeral cultural phenomenon (Facebook will turn 15 in early February) as inevitable, omnipresent and ageless, like gravity and weather. Facebook doesn’t just want to own your images, it wants to own your temporality. Slowly, and steadily, we outsource our relationship to time to a corporation, which reminds us every morning where we were last year, or a decade ago. Not only does it distort memory, it also distorts forgetting, an essential tool of happiness.
The 10-year challenge is just another technique whereby the same corporation that monetized the destruction of democracy can monetize the destruction of authentic memory. It is fun, and diverting, to “remember” that last year, on this date, we were sitting on a beach. But it is uncanny and bizarre to be reminded that four years ago we cooked a pot of red cabbage and served it with cheap prosecco. When we remember our lives authentically, we ask a fundamental question: Why did I remember this thing, at this moment? The “Why now?” question gives memory its meaning. Facebook randomizes and decontextualizes memory and detaches it from our current self. And why would I want to know what I looked like 10 years ago? This communion with lost time should steal upon us in it is own, organic fashion, not at the bidding of other people, or according to the algorithm of a rapacious and amoral corporation.
It is foolish to keep one’s passports, current and expired, in the same drawer. There’s always the chance that in the rush to the airport you’ll grab the wrong one. But I’ve found it strangely consoling to encounter these tiny snapshots of my younger self just as I’m about to start a new adventure. The pictures themselves stare out at me like perfect strangers, but the passport book contains a record of where I’ve been. That is infinitely more meaningful than what I once looked like.