#93: Don’t Picture This: The Trouble With Selfies

My phone’s front camera is probably very confused. It has been severely underused. The back camera is not very happy either, but it gets used occasionally when I have forgotten to take my regular camera with me and need to take a picture. Very rarely does the front camera get to make a video call, but I prefer to use a real computer for that.

I don’t even really know what a “filter” is on the phone or one of these photo apps, or why I should be using it. That’s what Photoshop is for, isn’t it? Of course, I know, and I mockingly pretend not to know. Somehow. But somehow, I also don’t know.

It’s not that I don’t take any pictures ever. I’m a pathological picture taker, and I have spent quite some time thinking about Susan Sontag’s book On Photography, which successfully and disturbingly analyzes said pathology. Ideally, this reading is combined with Plato’s discussion of the power of writing as well as his metaphor of the cave, Walter Benjamin’s article “The Work of Art in the Time of Mechanical Reproduction,” Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and Neil Postman’s Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Combining the insights gained from this tour de force of media theory, it becomes clear that it is too simplistic to cling to the idea that technology would be basically neutral, would just be tool, and that it would depend on how to use it. Technology is far more than that. Its influence on our lives is thoroughly transformative. It lets us believe that it does our bidding while in fact we yield to its influence and needs just as much. We do have some control over how to use it, but even its availability changes the very ways we can think about it.

Do I need to know something by heart, or is it just enough to look it up? Do I focus on experiencing something in real life, or do I focus on recording it, transforming it from a continuum of active being to a frozen moment in time, a mere snapshot, something that will serve as a substitution for reality? What does this kind of technological reductivism do to the world thus captured, what does it do to what we think about this world and the living beings contained therein? What does it do to people if they are mainly understood through their media representations? What does it do to their notions of self if those representations are created by themselves even?

Whoever sat pretty for Leonardo when he created the Mona Lisa may rest safely in their grave shrugging off whatever Leonardo may have seen in them and showed of them in his famous painting. But what does this do to the person conducting a self-portrait? We know that Vincent van Gogh probably did not gain in personal happiness through his painting of self-portraits. He represented himself as himself. If you subscribe to the idea that Leonardo actually may have painted himself as a woman, as Lillian Schwartz suggests (and which sounds actually fascinating and has some level of plausibility), then Leonardo perfectly understood that any visual representation is always an interpretation. Certainly, Van Gogh knew that also.

Artists understand that even if you depict yourself or represent yourself, you are never being authentic: There is always something else happening. The self on the page, or in the picture, always has to be seen as a lyrical I. The “me, myself and I” that you see in self-reflective and self-portraying art is never the real self. It is a deliberately chosen perspective, a snapshot at a specific time, a setting in a particular scene, an inauthentic moment posing as authentic for a very clear artistic and dramatic purpose.

Reality cannot be captured, it can only be represented. Umberto Eco illustrates this in his short story ridiculing the creating a map of the empire in a 1:1 scale. The map would completely cover and crush the reality beneath it, as it would take over the entire space of the empire itself. Similarly, if we rely on nothing but representations of reality in order to understand it, we will limit ourselves to understanding the representations rather than reality itself. Granted, sadly, we need media and representations to even be able to conceive of reality. Our perception itself mediates the world around us. We are always sitting in Plato’s cave, we can never access reality as such. But we can understand that our tools of perception and the media we use to facilitate our perception in turn influence that perception also.

As Susan Sontag describes it, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” This acquisition, this pictorial conquest, this obsessive need to claim some form of ownership of the world by possessing it through images eventually destroys our relation to the world. We substitute experience with representation, concreteness with abstraction, the world with pictures of the world, the self with pictures of the self.

This act of substitution, of representation, certainly affects how we see reality. The self, specifically if it is mainly communicated through pictures, will eventually conform to the pictures. As with many things, this is probably not a problem unless done to excess, but it can still fundamentally change how we see ourselves.

There is a reason – probably more psychological than religious – that some cultures have looked with suspicion at photographing people, or at depicting an image of divinity. That which can get captured, depicted, and represented so easily will lose its mystique, its transcendental qualities or – following Benjamin – its aura. Something happens once we fixate our selves through pictures. It happens both for others and for ourselves. But how do you represent yourself without losing some sense of self? Especially if this is a constant exercise in the performance of the self?

Should we see self-photography as an art form? For some, it certainly is; for others, the definition of art would probably have to be stretched a bit. But art certainly can be an escape clause here: it requires though – as illustrated above – a conscious act of deliberate self-distancing from the image of the self as performance.

Yet the context of such pictures of the self certainly matters also, whether we should see them as more artistic self-portraits or what is commonly described with the less high-brow term as selfies. As soon as a selfie is posted on social media, the battle for audience reactions begins. How many people like my picture? How many don’t? How many are seeing it? Is the picture being noticed? At what point though do these questions into something more personal? How many people like or dislike or notice me? Am I, as a person, liked, or is it the representation that is liked? Should my self – if a specific representation is liked – conform to the representation? Should I myself become the image I have put out there as an allegedly authentic image of myself (or of my self)?

Maybe this is the key: if the pretension of authenticity is taken at face value, selfies may well turn from being a possible work of art to an act of introspection through outside judgement, and become an exercise not of play but of masochism (or its psychological twin, narcissism). We know that social media itself should probably be better described as anti-social: They all too frequently are an exercise themselves, and not in sociality but in sadism. Artists all throughout time have suffered from bad reviews, and have tortured themselves through their art. Maybe we should thus see the selfie as the revenge of the self-portrait: May the same level of scorn be heaped on John or Jane Q. Public now as it was heaped on artists throughout the ages.

But that is certainly not something to be endorsed. Personally, I am staying out of the selfie game. There are plenty of ways to indulge in self-loathing; I certainly don’t need to document this in pictures on a regular basis.

#72: Can We Trust The Media?

I. Introduction, because this is a Longer Text and it Needs Headings

There appears to be a sense among many people that there is a problem with “the media.” Trust in media seems low, and there is a societal division with regards to which media is seen as reliable, which as misleading or fake. These divisions appear along most frequently along partisan lines. If it wasn’t such a serious problem, it would be quite humorous to see how different media (and their supporters) criticize their competitors as being unreliable, yet they themselves believe steadfastly in their own reliability (and so do their supporters).

Indeed, we seem to have moved away from a consumer attitude towards media, and instead to a supporter attitude. The media you consume defines you more than ever before, it seems.

As to the criticism, specifically news media engender a suite of response archetypes:

  1. I trust everything media sources supporting view A are saying, and distrust everything from view B. I read to reinforce the views I already have, whether consciously or not. A media outlet that has proven trustworthy in the past will be given the benefit of the doubt; but if a media outlet (and their corporate or ideological sponsors) are suspect for a variety of reasons, I steer away from it.
  2. I am generally skeptical of everything I read, see and hear. I try to verify everything I read, even of news sources that I am more skeptical about.
  3. I do not believe anything from establishment media – whatever their alleged ideological background – and am relying instead on alternative forms of information.

These are, of course, stereotypes. Nobody falls into any category neatly, and may change their views over time, depending on life circumstances, mood, or social circles. In general, position 1 may be the most common. Position 2 is probably aspirational, and position 3 the biggest source of social division right now. Even if you’re in opposing ideological camps, if you are still in position 1, you inhabit the same universe as everyone else. Media is essentially self-referential, and hardly an hour may come by in which those holding view A will not somehow reflect about and position themselves towards view B, and vice versa. Opposites do not just attract, they require each other like opposing parties in a game – and just like in a game, you hope both are playing fair, but you suspect they won’t always (except your team is always right…).

But let us contextualize this critique a bit more. What do we mean by “media”?

II. A Brief Excursion into Media Critique

A medium is that through which information is channeled, through which the world becomes represented through us. We have no direct means of accessing the world; even our sensory organs mediate existence to us, and our brain interprets it. In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes our reality as seeing merely shadows of reality represented on the wall of a cave, but as never being able to see reality itself directly (Republic 7.514a). Through education, specifically philosophy, he hopes we can unshackle ourselves from that scenario and see the real world, and see the ideas and the divine on our own without needing to rely on representations of them – viz. without the need for media.

Plato gives a second example (Phaedrus 274e-275b) when discussing the consequences of writing, and comes to a depressing conclusion:

“You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”

Furthermore, once the speaker is replaced by an author that is no longer available for conversation, texts replace conversation. This eliminates the human element from the equation, and creates distance, and opens up the possibility of a distortion from truth, from nuance, from interpretation and dialogic engagement. Culture – as transmitted through media – cedes to be a community-centered activity; it becomes an industry.

Theodor Adorno (yes, we are making a more than 2200-year jump) pointed out the dangers of such a culture industry, informed by his experiences with the Nazi propaganda machine, but worried about the possible rise of a machinery of entertainment, disinformation and commodification of truth in the West.

Both Marshal McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) and Neil Postman (“Amusing ourselves to death”) pointed to the properties inherent in technology itself to shape the any message mediated through it. We cannot ignore that the purpose of television is always entertainment. As Postman notes, in our obsession to be afraid of the Orwellian scenario of constant state supervision, we have given in to Huxley’s scenario of voluntary abdication of truth in pursuit of entertainment.

Gloomily, Michel Foucault, echoing Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, kept reminding us that any form of speech, any discourse, is imbued with a form of power. There is no neutral information, no neutral discourse, no escape. All we can do is become aware of the power of discourse, and to keep this power dimension in mind always.

Finally though, there can be a source of constructive optimism also if we follow Jürgen Habermas’ relentless exhortation to create a new and functioning public sphere, after the old one (the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the Renaissance and Enlightenment era salons of thinkers and dreamers, the old style newspaper landscape) is hopelessly lost. But if we aim for deliberative democracy, aim for the recognition of humanity of each other, and create an ideal space for discourse, we may just find a solution and do not have to abandon all hope in this post-Dantean infernal chaos.

What are we supposed to learn from this?

There is no neutral medium, and no media product – whether news, web sites, television, film, books, etc. – should be consumed uncritically. While some media products may manipulate to a high degree, there is no media that is not in some way manipulative or biased, whether through active commission of lies, or through omission of unwelcome truths.

III. Today’s Culture Industry: News Media and Corporate Ownership

While the critique of media pertains to non-news items also, most criticism is reserved for news media, but this is a short-sighted approach. If we follow the money, we will see that old-style media critique is still relevant.

By considering corporate ownerships and relations, we may gain some insight into possible influences on news reporting that may compromise the neutrality of some, if not all news outlets. That does not mean that all news and commentary originating from them may be tainted or unreliable, but it may point us as the audience towards being a bit more skeptical overall about what is reported and how, and what is left out. Money talks, and if corporations and governments are involved, there might be a specific bias. Ties to non-democratic countries that fight against complete freedom of the press (like China, Russia and Qatar) certainly will limit perspectives. Also, in cases where a company owns several news sources, you may find yourself in the same universe of similar news re-confirming themselves. Big media conglomerates also demonstrate that there are clear corporate ties between news, entertainment, and technology companies.

Current corporate ties for major news sources are as follows (see also: Wikipedia, TitleMax):

  • CNN: AT&T, Warner, HBO, Turner Broadcasting (upcoming theme parks in Zhuhai and Beijing, China, non-democratic)
  • FOX NEWS: NewsCorp – which means New York Post, Wall Street Journal, The Times (UK), The Sun (UK); the non-news division of FOX belongs to Disney now
  • MSNBC + NBC News: Comcast, Hulu, Universal, Telemundo (upcoming theme park in Beijing, China, non-democratic)
  • ABC News: Disney (operates theme park in Hong Kong, China, non-democratic)
  • CBS News: National Amusements, Viacom, Paramount, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon (upcoming theme park in Chongqing, China, non-democratic)
  • PBS News: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, donor- and subscriber model, solidly trying to be neutral
  • Yahoo!: Verizon
  • LinkedIn: operates a censored Chinese branch
  • Washington Post: Amazon
  • Russia Today: controlled by Russian government (non-democratic)
  • Global Times: controlled by Chinese government (non-democratic)
  • Deutsche Welle: controlled by German government
  • France24: controlled by French government
  • BBC: independent from UK government
  • Al Jazeera: controlled by Qatari government (non-democratic)
  • Breitbart, Parler: Mercer Family Foundation
  • Guardian, Boston Globe, New York Times, The Hill, Politico: currently independent

This list is certainly incomplete, and is just supposed to illustrate the complexity of the problem.

IV. Ideology

We certainly know that ideology of the news channel or paper certainly plays a role (what I described as “side A” and “side B” above).

I am split on what the consequence of that is. Do viewers already gravitate to a specific view, and then consume news conforming their bias? Or is their own bias created by a one-sided diet of news? I suspect this is a chicken-and-egg problem.

One more consistently raised but very valid criticism is the increased blending of news and commentary. You could add also the undue influence that any editorial stance – even if it may be contained to a commentary section – may exert over the entire enterprise.

Is news supposed to help people make up their own mind, or is it telling them what to think? Can it even make them do that – at which point would they risk them switching the channel, or buying a different paper?

V. The Decline of News Journalism

The real story here, of course, is the decline, if not outright destruction of real journalism. I am talking about newspapers – not because I am old-fashioned, but because that’s where most of real journalism actually still happens.

Television news is first entertainment, then commentary, then news – of course that is a polemical opinion, but especially in the American context it rings true. (In the German context, it depends on the channel – the society-supported subscriber-based channels ARD and ZDF do have functioning news rooms, and are focusing on news. Private channels like SAT1, RTL and PRO7 are more entertainment. Similar probably in the UK with regards to the BBC vs. independent television news).

I may have watched to much Superman and have been influenced by its Daily Planet, but aren’t newspaper newsrooms still more important than we all think? Where does your news come from? Who is typically cited on TV? News agencies (Reuters, DPA, etc.) and Newspapers, I presume.

More and more big newspapers are streamlined, news rooms made smaller, commentary enslaved by Twitter and Facebook, content syndicated, and small newspapers are disappearing or managed in bulk. This destroys the very fabric of our society. Who reports any more on local corruption and malfeasance? Certainly it is still happening, despite there not being any stories in the local newspaper – if you still have one.

If Media are still to be the fourth estate, they need to still exist in all parts of the country, and report on anything possible, and monitor and critique every single aspect of society, culture and politics.

VI. Balanced Skepticism

Returning to the sentiment with which I began: Are we in a position now where we seriously cannot trust the media at all anymore? No. But we all need to do our work, conceptually, and financially by supporting the news sources we do consume and trust.

Can we trust the media? As long as the media still mainly trusts us to make up our own mind, I would say yes, and would welcome the diversity of voices that can be heard on all sides of any debate.

In the end, there is only one truth. There are facts and non-facts. Something is either true or false. Beyond those distinctions though, there are grey areas of opinion, commentary, selection bias, spin, framing, etc. We need to be aware of the limitations of each news source, and we need to do our work as citizens to look beyond just one source of news. This is the only scientific and democratic attitude that can prevent us from being lodged in too deep our own filter bubbles.

Thus, if a news item only occurs within a specific news ecosystem and is ignored or not reported everywhere else, this should raise concern. If there is a definitive slant in opinion and commentary all the time, and it may affect what is reported in the assumedly neutral news as well. That does not mean there has to be bias, but we should assume there can be. An overall skeptical attitude is always a good thing.

That being said, we can indeed be skeptical of everything, but we also must put this in perspective, and our skepticism should be balanced. Reality is murky, and just as we cannot trust everything automatically, we also cannot distrust everything automatically. We need to follow the saying that “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,” as suggested by Carl Sagan. I have come to believe that it pays to listen to Carl Sagan most of the time.