Let's not act like selfies and food pics are 21st century phenomena

No, taking a photo of your brunch isn't a "revolutionary" act. Taking a selfie isn't one, either. We've been doing them both for centuries.

Instagram held a press conference today to announce that it was adding a messaging service to its app. That's all. Messaging.

Just to make that clear:

Kevin Systrom is the co-founder of Instagram, and his presentation contained some choice cuts of ludicrous Silico-speak. At one point he literally described the act of taking a photo of one’s brunch as “revolutionary”.

We can only wonder what he makes a painting like this:

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

That's Caravaggio's Still Life with Fruit (1601-1605), a painting of some brunch (or lunch, maybe breakfast). It's food, is the point. The art galleries of the world are filled with boring pictures of food - it's a topic that has sustained artists for centuries. There is nothing new about fixating on food. The animals on the walls of Bhimbetka and Chauvet might even count as food portraits.

Ancient human-like figures, like these ones painted onto rock in the Cederberg region of South Africa, might even be selfies:

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

That's a generous interpretation, I realise, but the self-portrait is one of the defining artistic subjects of human art, throughout the world. There are 141 self portraits in the National Gallery's collection, for example. It makes the response to the Oxford English Dictionary's decision to name "selfie" word of the year utterly baffling - there is nothing new about us documenting ourselves.

Think pieces that talked about the selfie's "screaming narcissim" that "sits at the excess of the ultimate theatricalising of the self" seem to treat something rather mundane as something that's - here's that word again - "revolutionary". Smartphones and digital cameras have made it easier to take photos of ourselves and our foods. They've also made it easier to take pictures of landscapes, but you don't see that getting parodied or turned into a Time cover story about the self-obsession of a generation. The difference between now and the Renaissance is the barrier to entry for those who couldn't afford paint and canvas.

The question it feels more worth asking here is this: why do we use new technologies the same as our old ones? Why is that we keep picturing the same things, again and again, but faster and faster? When is a technology amplifying something in our society, rather than actually changing it? And will every technology always end up, inevitably, a thing for porn?

It rather feels that focusing on the method, instead of the motive, misses the point a lot of the time.

Rembrandt pouting for a selfie, c.1630. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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