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Picture this: the images we take of ourselves are as disposable as our lives

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

As the medieval astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square strikes the hour, a crowd of tourists duck and crane to capture its face in the viewfinders of their digital cameras and on the screens of their mobile phones. The crowd is so large that those in front go down on their knees in order to afford those behind them a clearer shot.

Should the massed photographers choose, they could come back on the hour, every hour, until they get the shot they desire; or, alternatively, they could buy a professionally taken photograph in a nearby shop, or even download a perfect image from the internet. But no: they must have their own work of art, in this age of mechanical reproduction, and so they clutter up the cobbles. Skirting the edge of throng I observe snidely to my Czech companion, “One of them is undoubtedly taking the best ever photograph of the clock” and she snorts snidely in turn.

When I was a child, in the 1970s, we already thought Peak Photograph had been attained – if, by this, it is taken to mean a state of affairs in which the amount of imagery produced was in excess of our capacity to experience it meaningfully. I’m not talking here about John Berger’s decontextualisation through- reproduction of artworks, but of a far more profound loss of engagement: the world itself was being emulsified by so many exposures, and so losing whatever haptic quality it once possessed. Instead of touching tree bark, or crumbling earth between our fingers, this sense was being gratified by the toggles, lenses and grips of cameras; while our once wondrous viewing of exotica had already become synonymous with tedium – a social ritual that lives on in its computerprogrammed form as the slide show.

That was in the Instamatic age: the modish cartridge film system that allowed for easy aiming, snapping and reloading. But then each new photographic technology has seemed to privilege facility rather more than fidelity. The box Brownie was the Instamatic the 1900s, bringing within reach of ordinary people a capability that previously only belonged to the exalted: that of representation. In his fine book The Discovery of France Graham Robb notes that in the albums of the late- 19th-century French peasantry there are no photographs of children; it was pointless to expend so much time and money on an individual that might – given the death rate – prove more evanescent than its depiction.

Now we have the complete inversion of this, and from our standpoint the short trip to the developer’s seems an insufferable trek, yet it’s been a scant decade-and-a-half since this was the way. Our attitude to photographic images has also transmogrified; instead of being a form of recording, they have become incorporated into our visual field: we are all cameras now, with our shutters open, passive, recording not thinking.

It won’t be too long before all those ovalframed sepia scraps have finally mouldered away and there will be no rummaging through shoeboxes in junk shops for painfully posed photographs of the 1923 works outing to Pontypridd. But up there in the cloud the crowd will continue to multiply without end. So heedless have we become of our own image that second-hand mobile phones now invariably come with a SIM card chock-full of discarded intimacies.

What should we do about this triumph of trompe-l’oeil; the blotting-out of the real by a blizzard of its selves? Well, to begin with, let’s stop skirting the crowd photographing the astronomical clock. Plunge right in! Interpose yourself between the lenses and their object! It doesn’t matter any more! Whatever respect photography may once have deserved is now superfluous in view of its own superfluity. Amateur photographers may be disregarded – most professional ones outright shunned. After all, while it may be true that a large number of monkeys typing concertedly could probably come up with this column in year or two, any of you reading it could probably take most of the photographs in this magazine, given a couple of hours.

As we walked on through the narrow, winding streets of Prague, I explained all of this to my companion and she laughed bitterly but didn’t demur. It could’ve been because she was steeped in that peculiarly Czech sense of the visual world as a shadowplay (one that has given rise to an unrivalled culture of theatrical puppetry); or perhaps it was simply because she herself was an unhappy pro snapper.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.