#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.

#73: The Destruction of Creativity through “Social” Media

There used to be a magical time. You will remember it if you remember using MS Internet Explorer version 2 and above, Netscape Navigator 3 and the mighty Netscape 4 (Communicator). Search Engines (AltaVista, Lycos, Metacrawler, etc.) and Catalogues (Yahoo!) were two different things. Inktomi was not just an allusion to the Lakota spider-trickster (the original spiderman?) but the gold standard in search technology. Google was a nerdy new thing whispered about by tech-mages to their students (and still believed “don’t be evil”). Modems limited your internet speed, and if you had a chance to sit at a university computer, you hit the mother lode with terms of connection speed, and even a Windows NT machine!

I have a “bio-birthday” and a “web” birthday: on January 8, 1998, I built myself an awkward looking home at GeoCities’. This was the place to be, when GeoCities was not yet destroyed by yahoos who did not understand it. There were “neighborhoods”, I chose the sci-fi neighborhood (“Area 51”), and “Station”. Back then, it was clear that the internet was built for two things: Star Trek and pornography. I was definitely not doing the latter, thus Star Trek it would be. You can see early design versions of my site at my Layout History pages.

You had to learn how to do HTML, CSS, make graphics, logos, etc. You had to create your own content, thus you had to write, take pictures (analog!), scan them, reduce their filesize, create thumbnails, etc. Then, in a mad dash, a noisy modem session would be needed to upload the whole shebang to the respective FTP server. To find likeminded people, you joined a webring.

Web sites were wild areas for experimentation, and everyone who made one had to learn autodidactically, and had fun doing it. This was your own space, and it would be as good as your skills (and sense for layout and content) would be. You built your own identity. Your web site was an achievement, and once you felt it was good enough to accompany for longer, and once you found money to pay for it, it was time to get real. You dealt with InterNIC directly for your domain name, and would eventually get real server space.

The point is, you needed to learn, you developed skills, you learned about the nitty-gritty of the web. These were transferrable skills. You got to play, create something for yourself, and interact with like-minded people – who would actually get to e-mail you.

You still can do all these things, and some of them work better now. But there are monsters out there sucking all the creative energy out of the room in order to display shadows of it in their own space. MySpace provided a portal that still allowed for some wackiness to survive let people personalize the interface a bit more, but it was also the first step into a corporate world. Eventually, Facebook and all the rest have created a world where their own portal basically was supposed to encompass the internet. Now we also have apps that are graveyards for photos, short videos, shameless self-promotion, all to create ad revenue.

Your own web site works for you; but to Facebook (and services like it, wrongly called “social” media), you are the drone stuck in the matrix giving it life. You are completely dependent on social media platforms and their designs, their rules, their monetization. No skills need to be required, nothing needs to be learned that’s transferrable, other than how to use a stupid (in the sense of limited purpose) app on a phone. You cannot easily control your content, how it displays, how it will be read, and you engage with others in a monetizable manner where each of our “likes” feeds an algorithm to give you more of the same.

This is the end of creativity, or rather, it is the seduction of easiness that allows for the end of creativity. You can still get your own web site. Or even a blog (not the same, but better than social media). But most won’t, because we humans are all creatures of convenience nowadays, and why make the effort when minimal mock-effort is enough?

Why give up a personal space on the web that is really yours to shape for the simulacrum or rather poor parody of such a possibility on so-called social media?