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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times