The Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on Mars: Modern life is science fiction – but would you dare go on a one-way mission to Mars?

Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

If you were offered a one-way ticket to Mars, would you take it? It’s a serious question. The first manned Mars landing, organised by a Dutch company called Mars One, has put out a call for applicants. In 2018, the planets will literally align, making a journey to the Red Planet more than feasible. You don’t have to be a trained astronaut but you must be willing to spend 521 days in a very small space with three other people, with limited supplies and drinking water reclaimed from your own effluvia. You will also be under constant video surveillance, because this mission to Mars is relying on global TV networks to cover its considerable budget. It’s the ultimate Big Brother, with no way out: after a year and a half the colonists will either shag or kill each other, or both. The ratings will be fantastic.

Most of all, you must be willing to say goodbye for ever to your family, your friends, the barista at your favourite coffee shop. This is a one-way trip: even if they make it through the gruelling physical ordeal of the journey, it is possible none of the astronauts will ever come home. Sounds like a raw deal, right?

Yet in its first few days of operation, Mars One received more than 10,000 applications for four places. This was despite a considerable entry cost designed, ostensibly, to screen out spam applicants. The company has already made a small fortune in application fees, making me wonder if it’s a scam. If so, it’s an extremely elegant one, conning millions of desperate people to hope there might be a future for the human race outside this cramped and poisoned planet, and that we might get to be a part of that future. It’s not as if Earth has a great deal going for it right now. No wonder people are falling over themselves to sign up.

It's a little ironic that I'm writing this column on Earth Day, the international celebration of the natural wonders of the third planet on behalf of a population whose leaders are doing their best to burn those wonders for money and choke the rest of us in the process. In the forty years since the first Earth Day in April 1970, with successive world governments having failed almost entirely to tackle climate change, the event has taken on the sort of grim party atmosphere of a nonagenarian's birthday party. Give grandma some cake, everybody! She might not be around to enjoy it next year! I only found out that it was Earth Day on typing the word 'Mars Mission' into the Google Search bar. This further illuminates the logic of exploring other options if you can raise the cash, which most of us can't.

So, would you go? Since I heard about the Mars project, I’ve been putting that question to everyone I meet, because I think the answer says a lot about who you are and what you value. I still can’t decide. I’d have to balance the certainty of playing a heroic role in the early history of human space exploration against the possibility of being locked in a tin can for the rest of my life with a closet Tory, or someone who finds Al Murray amusing.

Furthermore, as one of two women aboard the Mars One, I would eventually be expected to reproduce with my shipmates. Doing the deed wouldn’t pose too many problems – after 521 days adrift in the unfathomable vastness of space, I’d probably find a cheese sandwich attractive if it looked at me in a saucy way. But if I’m going to represent humanity, I’d rather it be because of my natural talents or my winning personality – anything, quite frankly, other than my uterus. Seven generations of women’s liberation activists didn’t fight for education, health access and political representation only to see the first women on Mars reduced to spare wombs. Besides, although sex in zero gravity sounds fun, childbirth is probably less so, especially after more than a year of sitting around drinking your own urine and not washing. Hmm.

Like it or not, most of us are stuck on this planet. Earth, as the physicist Carl Sagan observed, is where we make our stand. The moment you comprehend this fully is the moment recreational drug use becomes either substantially more exciting or less so, depending on what sort of person you are.

When they’re selecting the pioneers to leave the smoking remains of the earth, I will probably lack the requisite skillset for a place on one of the colony ships, because most of what I’m good for is writing articles, drinking coffee and complaining when I have to climb a lot of stairs. The closest I’ll get to outer space is watching interstellar cruisers blow each other into glittering bits on Battlestar Galactica and feeling, as always, that painful longing that digs in right under the ribcage: the understanding that my distant descendants might be lucky enough to see such wonders in real life but I never will.

I imagine that’s how my great-greatgrandparents felt when they read about marvellous inventions such as the internet and the contraceptive pill, both of which were science fiction a scant century ago, and without both of which my life would be unimaginably less free. There is something in us that is hungry, even in the most desperate times, for a future we can only half-envision, and the reason the Mars mission has captured the public imagination is that it promises something that these days is rare and precious: a real journey into the unknown.

A handful of generations ago, it was common for men and women who set off on dangerous journeys to places off the edge of the map to have almost no hope of return. In Ireland, “American wakes” were held whenever a friend or family member sailed for the US. Even if they survived the journey, nobody was expected to come home and it could take months for letters to arrive.

Modern life is science fiction. Love letters cross continents at the speed of thought and dead men sing on the radio. Before the telegram and the steam engine and antibiotics and Google Maps, this planet was simply a lot bigger and scarier. And yet people have never been content to stay at home.

One of the things that distinguish Homo sapiens from many of our competitor species is our capacity to dream up and set about stupidly dangerous endeavours just to find out what might happen. I don’t believe in God but I do believe that humanity is one long, terrible adventure that most of us, if we’re lucky, will never get to see the end of.

So, what did you decide? Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

The good news, or the bad news, depending on your viewpoint, is that you don’t have to. You were signed up when you were born. We’re all on a journey like that and it’s called living. That’s no reason not to go to space but it might be reason to get up in the morning.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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The Fake Kids of Instagram? Behind the backlash against the internet famous

Bloggers and vloggers are coming under fire for seeming inauthentic online. 

When beauty blogger Amelia Liana went to the Taj Mahal, there wasn’t another tourist in sight. The ivory-white world heritage site was deserted of all but Liana and a flock of swooping white birds overhead. Liana stood in front of the long reflecting pool that stretches out from the iconic building and stared off into the distance. It was a rare and beautiful moment of solitude at one of the seven wonders of the world.

At least, according to Liana’s Instagram.

As a blogger and YouTuber, Liana is no stranger to online hate. Yet over the last month, social media has been ablaze with individuals accusing Liana of Photoshopping, editing, and faking her pictures. In particular, critics claim she is cutting out pictures of herself and pasting them onto separate pictures of locations and landmarks. Some claim she edited out the tourists in her Taj Mahal picture, while others allege she Photoshopped herself on to a picture of the site.

Liana has released video footage showing that she attended the locations in question, but her critics are not convinced that her corresponding Instagram pictures are entirely authentic.

 A still from Liana's video of her India trip

In one example, lifestyle blogger and masters student Ellie Dickinson, 22, claimed Liana had Photoshopped a picture of an ice-cream in New York City. In the picture, Liana holds up a specialist ice-cream cone from Taiyaki, a shop that Dickinson claims is a twenty minute drive from the street in Liana’s picture. To her, it appears as if Liana took a picture of her ice-cream in one location and then edited it onto another, creating a composite to two images.

These criticisms of Liana's Instagrams are not isolated. She has also been accused of Photoshopping a fake sunset into a plane window and, in one bizarre example, editing a photograph taken at Heathrow Terminal 5 so that the background features planes in Heathrow Terminal 2. In the most questioned photograph, Liana appears to have Photoshopped her bed so it is in front of a picturesque London view. It is hard to prove or disprove which of Liana's photos are faked (or indeed whether any are), though many online are sharing the accusations.

“Because I work with Photoshop a lot, I zoomed in on one of her pictures because the grain and sharpness didn't seem right and went from there,” explains Dickinson, who says she thought this incident was “the icing on top of the cake” of blogger and Instagram fakery. Dickinson didn't intend for hate to be sent Liana's way, but urges people to be more questioning of what they see online. 

“Instagram is always a slightly fictionalised image of our lives but too many people believe it's the reality," she says. In her opinion: “We all adjust contrast and lighting but she's taken it a step too far.” 

Fakery on Instagram is nothing new. In May, the Instagrammer and Photographer Sara Melotti told me about the “Instagram mafia”, explaining that many travel bloggers visit the same spot to get the perfect photo, but then leave without touring the area. In October 2015, Instagram model Essena O’Neill quit the site, branding social media “contrived” and rewriting the captions on her images to explain how long it took to take a photo, or whether she was paid by a brand to pose with a product.

Yet the accusations against Liana seem to be more extreme. Though the star has video footage illustrating she really did visit the locations on her Instagram, editing pictures is a grey area. “I keep wondering how you are the only one in shot! It's always so busy there,” reads a comment on Liana’s photograph of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

Things become more problematic when money is involved as Liana – like many Instagrammers and vloggers – is often paid by brands to advertise products on her social media. In the much-maligned London bed photograph, Liana is advertising the beauty brand Glam Glow. “Got the Glam Glow setter right after I saw it in your last Video - so far I love it! This picture totally blows my mind!! ❤” wrote one commenter. In many of her posts, Liana references hotels she is staying in, which could in turn influence her followers' booking decisions.

“I think the problem of dramatically engineering Photoshopped Instagram posts is that it encourages an unobtainable lifestyle,” says Laura, a 24-year-old beauty blogger who mocked Liana’s posts on Twitter when the fakery accusations emerged. Laura does not believe Liana should be “attacked” for Photoshopping, but does worry about the trend for fakery in the industry.

“Instagram, by nature, encourages us to post a filtered image focusing on the highlights of our life but there's a difference when Instagrammers choose to create a fantasy and pass that off as reality. When you factor in money and young influential fans as well, I think such a level of delusion edges towards being fraudulent.”

Last week, the YouTuber Lele Pons was accused of lying in an Instagram post in which she claimed to have cut off her hair to donate to charity. Emily Cutshall, a 17-year-old high school student from California discovered that in the picture, Pons was actually holding up hair extensions, passing them off as her real hair. She tweeted her discovery and gained over 76,000 retweets.

“I felt like I needed to get the word out,” explains Cutshall, who says she was “upset” that the star could mislead followers about contributing to a good cause. “The fact that Lele had lied about her donation was not something that I thought she should get away with.”

Since going viral, Cutshall has used her Twitter presence to encourage others to donate their hair. Though she felt guilty about directing negative attention to Pons, she believes it is important that more people “stand up for what [they] believe in and question the integrity of others”.

“If you see someone being dishonest about something you think is important, whether it's an internet personality or a stranger you met five minutes ago, you shouldn't be afraid to take a stand against that,” she says. Lele Pons later tweeted that she had intended to donate her hair before realising wig charities don’t accept dyed hair, but she did not explain why the hair in her photograph appears to be extensions.

The drama around Pons and Liana is part of a wider trend of “exposing” celebrities – both from social and traditional media. In 2016 #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trended after her ex, Calvin Harris, ranted about her orchestrating media stories. Yet though the trend of “sipping tea” (that is, sharing rumours and enjoying gossip) can make exposing internet celebrities seem flippant, it is important to call out online fakery. Though a Photoshopped sunset is not as damaging as the “fake news” spread during and since the United States Presidential Election, it is still a worrying aspect of the erosion of authenticity online.

 

Headed to my favourite city today with @yslbeauty So excited to be back! #MonParis #Paris #TourEiffel

A post shared by Amelia Liana (@amelialiana) on

Amelia Liana did not respond to a request for comment and nor did her agency. Since 2015, she has been open and transparent about the fact she adds filters and changes the contrast to “play with” her pictures and make them appear more pink, but she has never confirmed the allegations of copying and pasting photographs of herself onto different backgrounds, nor adding in fake elements. It is hard to say with absolute certainty that her pictures are indeed faked, but the backlash demonstrates a thirst for reality and authenticity in an online world of posing and filters. 

In many recent captions on her Instagram photos, Liana has now taken to stating she visits popular attractions at 6 or 7am to get pictures without tourists in the background. In recent pictures, the birds that so frequently flew across the landscape in her old photographs are nowhere to be seen.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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