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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

A World of Pictures

Susan Sontag was right: cameras define reality in ways essential to the workings of a capitalist society.

A few months ago, a high school friend of mine got engaged. He brought his girlfriend to a small, unpopulated beach on the north shore of Kauai under the pretense of finding the perfect snorkeling spot. As Christie snapped on her goggles, Kevin dropped to one knee, splashing gentle Pacific sand across his soulmate’s feet. She recognized the glint of the diamond instantly. Crying, she said the magic word. They kissed.

I haven’t congratulated Kevin-From-High-School on his engagement yet.1 In fact, I haven’t even spoken to him in eight years. Still, I know everything there is to know about his life—including the detailed chronology and choreography of his probably not staged betrothal—from pictures on Instagram. Mere moments after the tears were dried and the ring secured on the awaiting finger, all 1,974 of Kevin’s Facebook friends, including me, could view the professional photographs: the pair hugging and smiling on the beach; wading into the ocean, flippers in hand; a few glamour shots of the diamond.

That I could have “kept up” with someone for so long without ever exchanging personal or reciprocal communication is by now no real surprise. We all do it, all the time: imbibe a steady stream (or really, a steady scroll) of personal accomplishments and breathtaking vistas—status updates—from people with whom we rarely interact beyond depositing double-taps of the thumb.

Instead, what struck me in the wake of Christie and Kevin’s engagement was how much I had come to rely on the imagery of my internet peers, their curated boxes of connotation without denotation. I know a lot about my “friends,” but not because I’ve spoken to them, or read about them, but because I’ve seen them. I thought of all the pictures from that day: a lobster roll, a Slovenian church, innumerable mountain tops and semi-nude bodies, an anniversary, cats, a birth, dogs, an ad for a scrubs company featuring surprisingly brawny doctors whose rippling muscles gripped toy stethoscopes. I swim daily through this cybersea of pictures, devoid of language save for the sparsest of captions, images haunted by splendor or sadness, but always laden with meaning.

I’m also gripped by daily photographic anxiety. In the wake of Kevin’s engagement, I began to wonder, when I proposed one day how would I share the news online? Presumably, I would need to plant surreptitious cameramen at the scene hours before our arrival. But even before that, I’d have to ensure the venue was conducive to photography, securing adequate lighting and the absence of errant pedestrians. And then, what if the photos didn’t turn out well? Could my fiancée pull off a reshoot? How much do guerrilla photographers charge for re-dos? Kevin would probably know the answer to some of these things, but, like I said, I don’t really talk to him. 

A vast reservoir of ink has already been spilled defining the ills of social media: how it makes us depressed and polarized, or how it ruins our body image and our democracy. Several prominent Silicon Valley types have come out against the omnipresent social forces, including Jaron Lanier—who wrote the straightforwardly named Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now—and many architects of the technologies themselves, featured in the 2020 Netflix documentary Social Dilemma. A surprising number of people who designed social media, we are told, don’t allow their own children to use Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat despite, or rather because of, their years spent creating the platforms’ wildly addicting algorithms. (It’s interesting to note, from a sociological perspective at least, the recurring theme of the turncoat firebrand, the former insider—not unlike the physician who was on the payroll of a pharmaceutical company and now, having come to the light, decries industry influence, or the Wall Street trader of yesteryear bemoaning financial loopholes. We place a premium both on expertise and on redemption, the ex-pill pusher, the ex-trader, and the ex-social engineer all valued for their seeming authenticity in whistleblowing.) One of the most popular videos about quitting social media, with over 8 million views, is a talk given by Cal Newport, a computer scientist who assures the audience that it is possible to live without Facebook. (But, he works on a computer all day! How does he do it?)

And then, there’s the entire genre of “social media sabbaticals,” in which writers recount their experience “going off the grid”; these can range from the clickbaity 9 Reasons Why You Should Go on a Social Media Detox to the more meditative quests dedicated to erasing performativity or rediscovering boredom. I’ll spare the reader the obvious joke about sharing a narrative about quitting social media on, well, you know, social media.

While these recent criticisms seem apt—we could probably all benefit by taking a break from echo chambers and fake news and watching teenagers dance in their bedrooms—most detractors of social media, in addressing the deleteriousness of its content, fail to acknowledge the problem with the form itself. That is, apart from Twitter (about which separate gripes abound), most of social media is not literate, but visual: pictures, videos, gifs, memes. Sure, there are the occasional Facebook rants and bombastic comment section fame wars (a dear friend was once engaged in a vituperative three-week repartee in the Facebook group “Christian moms against My Little Pony”; it did not end well for the religious mothers), but most of social media, at least the kind that is consumed blithely and perpetually—the kind most amenable to insouciant scrolling—remains grounded in images, not words. Instagram had 1.074 billion users in 2021, up more than 22% from last year. And YouTube is the second most visited site in the world, with over 1 billion hours of video watched each day. Irrespective of what we are viewing, such overwhelming consumption demands an appraisal of how we are doing it.

Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher and pioneer of communication studies, made popular the phrase “the medium is the message,” contending that each form of human communication conveys its own precepts which often subsume the content explicitly presented within them. If books, radio, and television each affected contemporary culture as much through format as through content, then what of our modern, internet age? The digital images with which we are constantly bombarded not only take up our time and attention; in creating a virtual world, one founded on representation, they also mediate our sense of reality. To understand the message of our modern media—one supported by digital imagery—we fortunately don’t need to watch another TED talk. Instead, we can turn to thinkers who far predated the Kardashian era, critics from a time when black and white wasn’t a filter but the norm, and cameras, revolutionary tools for objectivity and art, weren’t yet in every pocket around the globe.

What exists in that 2-minute window between the surprise of slipping on the diamond and the posting of the picture of the freshly-adorned finger? As Kevin and Christie scramble to their phones, cupping hands over screens to shield the formidable Hawaiian sun, are they engaged? Do they stop and think about the event that has occurred, share in the incontrovertible beauty of their commitment? Or do they relish in anticipation of the exuberance—and a little envy—that will ensue as friends, digitally connected yet geographically remote, learn of the news? Most likely, they listen to the whoosh of the data as it spirals up to the cloud and wait for the luxurious ping that signifies consecration in cyberspace. Now, they are really engaged.

To conservatives in the abortion debate, life begins, irrevocably, with conception. For millennials, the line is demarcated digitally. Experiences (like kayaking down a river or proposing on the beach) are finished, in a temporal sense, as soon as they are done, yet they remain inchoate and untethered until they are added to the endless scroll of a feed. Now more than ever, we find that life begins not with conception, but with representation. Nothing is real until it is posted.

Guy Debord was a French philosopher and filmmaker whose slim text Society of the Spectacle, first published in 1967, offers much insight into our current social media milieu. Debord posited the concept of the spectacle, which he defined “not [as] a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” While Debord’s criticism was of TV and film, Kevin and Christie’s engagement photos typify a modern spectacle; their images interact with those of countless other couples on the plane of social media, detached from the world of physical reality, yet undoubtedly born from the same earthly terrain.

When I was in middle school, it was common for two people who were dating to make their courtship “Facebook official” (whatever this meant in 6th grade, I still am not sure). Nowadays, nearly every stage in life can be concretized in a similar fashion, adding detail after detail to the tapestry of the spectacle, a simulacrum of real life. We announce when we are in a relationship, when we are single again, when we graduated high school, college, and professional school. We enshrine our engagements, weddings, and divorces, as well as our acceptance of jobs, translocations, and migrations. We share the quotidian (what we ate, watched, and read) and the internal (what we thought, misunderstood, and felt). Commenting on mass media in the middle of the twentieth century, Debord’s words still ring true: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” Today, the representation of which Debord speaks is the detailed and chronological projection of our lives found on social media, a reality formulated by pictures.

Ernst Cassirer, writing in the early part of the twentieth century, made a claim eerily similar to Debord’s:

“Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images … that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of [an] artificial medium.”

This inability to experience anything—except by the interposition of an artificial medium—describes precisely our debilitated position as beings in the world. Every event in which we partake is now seen and known through the filter of how it could be seen and known online. This was long understood by concertgoers. (“Stop recording the whole concert on your phone and listen to the music!”)

The symbolic realm—and our anticipation of how our physical life will be represented in that realm—now extends its reach beyond vacations and concerts, informing the course of major life events. Take, for example, Kevin’s engagement. Presumably after deciding that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Christie, he began to consider where and how he would ask her for such a commitment. In knowing that pictures of this event must ultimately be shared on Instagram, he would have been influenced to pick a photogenic locale for his proposal, or at least one that exuded a certain amount of romantic charm.

In other words, the mere specter of the symbolic realm has the capacity to influence the physical. In recent years, leisure travel has increasingly been influenced by the prospect of social media as various locales—like the corner of Washington and Water Street in Dumbo, Brooklyn—have taken on symbolic value chiefly due to their photogenicity, or their Instagrammability, and not necessarily because of any intrinsic physical beauty or artistic or cultural value. Travel blogs describe the “most instagrammable spots in all 50 states,” and tour guides regularly promise to reveal the most Instagram-worthy spots from Pisa to Bali. While some might protest that these locations have always been beautiful, and hence beckon the social media user to photograph and share, closer inspection reveals that the most Instagrammable spots are gorgeous specifically through the filter of a camera lens—their proportions, lighting, foreground and background all remarkably well-suited for photographic memorialization.

Susan Sontag, prolific intellectual and activist, recognized this effect of visual media far before the advent of the internet in a series of essays entitled On Photography. In the second half of the 20th century, Sontag examined the effects of the mounting predominance of the photograph, as it became the basis for entertainment, advertisement, education, and memorialization—the primary medium for communication itself.

“Seen through the acute eye of the camera, any object acquires beauty or appears interesting—the most mundane subject constitutes art. The camera empowers everyone to make artistic judgments about importance, interest, or beauty, to assert ‘that would make a good picture.’”

The camera, coupled with social media, enables us to capture and recreate the “good pictures” that others have taken, allowing these digital images to serve as an instrument for social capital rather than aesthetic objects in and of themselves. This, Sontag furthered, “divorces the sphere of individual contemplation and expression from the sphere of surveillance and social utility.” In the modern sense, the social utility garnered from our digital iconography is a kind of viral capital, each pixel a building block in the online network we call our own.

Thus, we explore our own environment as if it were a jaunty pic or dazzling status update. We lose the ability to see the world and our experiences, to borrow from Cassirer, except by the interposition of this (social) media. This truth was made luridly clear to me during a ritzy luncheon hosted by my old employer. As we were arriving at our seats in the sunlit private room, one of my colleagues, let’s call her Diane, pulled out her phone and began snapping selfies. “It’s the room,” she enthused. “The lighting is amazing! I need to get a few pics to save for later.”

I realized that Diane might post those pictures weeks, maybe months, later—with some snappy and nonspecific message that dissociated the images from their temporal and sentimental grounding. That we have been trained to experience physical life—birthday parties, hikes, work luncheons—first and foremost through the lens of Instagram and Snapchat, as an indistinct series of events with more or less good or bad lighting, is perhaps the greatest travesty of the social media simulacra.

Equipped with a perpetual camera lens, every person is, as Sontag proposed, the judge of reality’s artistic value, a miner scouring the physical realm for gems that might dazzle on the web, appreciating time and space only as a reservoir for the spectacle. And if curating the spectacle requires some amount of creative liberty (or illusion), so be it, for the spectacle itself is the only virtuous mode. Facetune and Photoshop are not sophistry, but artistry. Remember, the medium is the message. In the present era, being is less valuable than having, which is even less vital than appearing.

The 1998 film The Truman Show, in which a guileless young man discovers that he has lived his entire existence in a massive television production, is frequently praised for auguring the rise of reality TV. Since the film was released, starting with American Idol and culminating with Vanilla Ice Goes Amish, reality shows—from the mainstream to the profanely niche—have established themselves as a staple of the small screen landscape; in 2015, there were at least 750 reality shows on cable.2

While the contemporary media panorama mirrors in many ways the world envisioned in The Truman Show, fact diverges from fiction in one crucial aspect. In the film, a vast army of production assistants, actors, and cameras were necessary to produce the illusion that aired to millions of viewers each day. Today, any individual needs only their smart phone—and nothing else—to instantaneously reach their friends, followers, and total strangers. The possibility of becoming an influencer, or perhaps merely the allure of being seen among a world overflowing with images, beckons all to share their life online, to turn their joys and sorrows into fodder for weary and ravenous eyes.

It seems almost foolish to attempt to recount the multitude of shocking ways in which individuals in the last few years have debased their private lives for the sake of social media prominence. Hundreds of people have died—drowned, hit by cars, bowled over by trains, charged by an elephant—trying to take selfies. A YouTuber traumatized a man by convincing him that his best friend had been kidnapped and murdered. Perhaps most symbolically appropriate, however, would be the example of rapper DJ Khaled livestreaming the birth of his son, including shots of his wife’s strained face and legs in lithotomy position. One would be hard pressed to find a better example of what Sontag called “chronic voyeurism.” This is a version of The Truman Show, one without the intermediary of a studio or camera crew, yet somehow even more invasive.

The film implied that it would take an elaborate ruse to convince anyone to live their entire life on camera; 20 years later, we know that people will record and broadcast pretty much anything intimate—including tearful break-ups, images from motor vehicle accidents, or replicas of their newborn—in exchange for public validation.

As Sontag trenchantly observed, “The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing.” That was in the 1970s. Now, cameras are even more ubiquitous, with Americans spending more time on smartphones than watching TV. Everything is now worth photographing.

And yet, our panoply of visual images is more than the product of a culture of oversharing. It’s a necessity for a consumerist society. Sontag again:

“A capitalist society requires a culture that is based on images. It needs to generate images of new commodities and forms of entertainment in order to stimulate buying. It also needs to gather unlimited information, the better to utilize natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, and produce jobs. Serving these needs, ideally, are the camera’s twin capacities: to “subjectivize” reality and to objectify it. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of a capitalist society: as a spectacle to absorb the attention of the citizenry; and as an object of scrutiny to assist officials responsible for governing.”

On the one hand, Sontag suggests that photography allows us to tame reality, to bring a moment into existence, to “objectify” it. And yet, those discrete moments are our own, each “subjectivized” account a distinct mimeograph of one individual’s experience.

While Sontag was prescient in her examination of the untoward influence of the explosion of visual images, her critique did not, and perhaps could not, foresee a world in which average citizens are both consumers and producers of media. If, as many have claimed, data is the new oil, with technology giants vying for access to digitized troves of our online activity, then we are the Mesozoic creatures, the dinosaurs who were sacrificed as fossil fuels. Every aspect of our online personae—proposal pics included—serves as monetizable data points.

At the same time, home-grown entertainment in which one may participate as both performer and viewer (e.g., YouTube or TikTok) poses a new challenge to consumers and social critics alike: What becomes of intimacy when once-personal moments (proposals, births) are commodified by the camera lens and shared with the world wide web? In the spectacle of social media, we are both the cast and the audience. As we relinquish our data to the corporations, we also trade the intimacy that once accompanied private moments for transient digital attention. We feel like we are establishing reality by consecrating it online, but in truth, merely convert life events into commodities—objects for someone else’s sluggish scroll.

And just like the fossil fuels that power jet engines, the visual representations of our lives are nonrenewable, and must ultimately be replaced with an ever-increasing amount of media. Sontag furthers with a passage with obvious parallels to the present day:

“The logic of consumption provides the ultimate reason for photographing everything in modern, capitalist society. To consume means to burn, to use up—and, therefore, to require replacement. As images are made and consumed, the consumers need more and more of them. Images are manufactured at an ever-faster rate. Cameras are both the antidote and the disease. Photographic images add to the natural world the manufactured images that help to bolster a depleted sense of reality. But by so doing, these images further deplete the real world, making it appear drab and obsolete by comparison.”

The perception—at least among many teenagers and young adults—that social media is more exciting than the real world seems by now practically a truism. And anyone who uses Instagram can attest to the unending barrage of pictures. In fact, the entire design of the app, its central conceit, is that there is always more to see—more pictures of friends, more sponsored content, more targeted ads. Every image, once scrolled past, requires replacement with another.

There is, of course, a psychic toll to turning one’s entire life into a commodity, as reality TV icons know all too well. Jessica Simpson, one of America’s first true “stars” of reality television, shared just as much in a perceptive and cautionary passage of her recent memoir, Open Book, comparing her early 2000s television fame to the now ubiquitous celebrity of social media:

“Nowadays, I see so many people performing their identities on social media, but I feel like I was a guinea pig for that … How was I supposed to live a real, healthy life filtered through the lens of a reality show? If my personal life was my work, and my work required me to play a certain role, who even was I anymore?”

Simpson’s words should give pause to the countless Americans who define themselves as, or aspire to become, influencers. In hoping to play a certain role, a curated online representation, these individuals allow the possibility of the spectacle to dictate who they are, in the very real world. All of us “average” social media users also face the same prospect—objectifying our life, turning physical reality into a digital commodity.

When I was young and visited my grandmother in India, I often marveled at how long it took her to look at photographs. Handing her a stack of pictures developed at the drugstore, I’d point out the faces of friends or spots around my home (this being a time before video-calling, my grandmother had never seen what my bedroom looked like). As soon as I had discussed a picture, I was ready to move on to the next, but my grandmother would clasp the glossy paper tightly, insisting on studying it longer, ofen for at least a minute. Perhaps it was poor vision or an unfamiliarity with the content of the images, but I’m tempted to believe that her patience—her insistence on scrutinizing the content of each snapshot—was a product of her era. My grandmother came of age during a time in which photographs were at once posed, momentous, and infrequent. Now, I scroll past more pictures than she might have taken in her entire life while I wait for the subway. My grandmother savored pictures. I burn through—genuinely consume—them.

There are two common rejoinders to the contentions set forth above. The first is the contention that life has always been lived socially, and to some degree subject to the judgmental, and objectifying, eyes of others. Humans have always performed—donning stylish clothing, applying makeup, speaking in certain ways—and the attention paid to curating an online persona is no different, or so the argument goes.

Yet, an image-based social media marks a meaningful departure, both in the severity of our slavishness to the spectacle, and in its permanence. In the old days, our performances were at least temporary; we wore makeup to a party, then wiped it off at home. If we were ever caught in a compromising position at brunch, fork midway from plate to mouth, the moment would soon pass, and our acquaintances could have the chance to forget it. Now, virtual representations of ourselves are held, for all practical purposes, eternally on the web. Our friends tread and retread through our libraries, our profile pictures viewed thousands of times. Moreover, the scope of what is deemed off-limits, the time for solitude devoid of performance, has contracted. It’s increasingly common for funerals, quiet evenings on the couch, and serene holiday mornings to be subject to commitment to imagery.

The second popular retort is that while at times distracting, social media is an indispensable tool for keeping up with friends and family. This contention, the “necessary evil” school of thought, posits that just like email or traffic, social media is simply something that must be tolerated for the sake of connectedness. Research suggests, however, that there is a finite and relatively low number of relationships which an average person is capable of maintaining: around 150. This figure, referred to as Dunbar’s number, is apparently fixed due to the physical limitations of our brain size, even with the supposed help of social media.

And yet, every single person I know has more than 150 friends on Facebook, often more than 1500, and the way in which they interact with those internet personae could hardly be described as nourishment for genuine friendship. The crucial difference between social media and earlier forms of communication is that posting is, at its core, passive. Sharing a photo does not necessitate an introduction nor a response. We used to have to tell someone something about ourselves. On Instagram, we can broadcast the same message. We promulgate, rather than converse. This explains how people who are superficially connected—perpetually internalizing information about each other—can find themselves increasingly alienated. Even though I know more about everyone I call a friend, I feel far less intimate with them.

“Mallarmé said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” Several decades later, Sontag’s quip seems truer than ever, although one gets a sense that more and more people are posting pictures out of a feeling of obligation, rather than excitement. I wish I didn’t have to take this picture, but…And while it’s never a great sign when people are resigned to and trapped by their technology (another wonderful McLuhan line: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”) one can view resentment towards the current state of affairs as the first step towards liberation—to retirement from being at once subject and photographer.

As for me, I decided to unfollow Kevin. I didn’t want to keep getting updates on his life, not without at least saying hello, and I thought he shouldn’t have the pressure of another set of eyes. Not that he was thinking of me, specifically, in the tremulous moments before he popped the question. But I know from personal experience that every post is meant for no one and for everyone, so I thought I’d do my part.

Still, if I ever bump into Kevin in my hometown in the next few years, at a coffee shop or local pub, I hope he’ll fill me in on how the wedding went. I would like to be told something new about his life, something I haven’t already seen online. Maybe he’ll have kids. I’m sure he’d show me a picture.

  1. Names have been changed to respect privacy, although I am quite confident that my friend would not take umbrage at the broadcasting of his engagement details with the estimable readers of this publication. After all, he shared the news with far surlier parties. Coach DiLorenzo, of middle school Phys Ed, was the first to “like” the proposal pictures. 

  2. EXTREME WEIGHT LOSS; DUCK DYNASTY; NAKED AND AFRAID; 90 DAY FIANCÉ. Absurd and ridiculously specific, reality shows blend formerly distinct genres, birthing spin-offs where one might reliably expect entertainment value to be all but depleted. In the reality show economy, perhaps more so than in any other, Steve Jobs’ message about market research rings true: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Never could we have imagined the unadulterated, rapturous pleasure of watching two random adults scavenge for sustenance in the wilderness of Alaska, all the while being completely, ass-to-the-frost naked.

    It would be easy to dismiss the bulk of these shows as crass, but careful observation reveals a certain level of perspicacious social reflection inherent to all “reality” programming, a harbinger of social media. Consider, for instance, I WANNA MARRY HARRY, in which female participants compete to woo the then-single Prince Harry. The catch? The man featured in the dating show was actually a paid imposter, who only very moderately resembled the royal in question. Ethical (and possibly legal?) issues aside, the levels of conceit required to cast, film, promote, and broadcast such a production, as well as the self-referential jab at dating shows as a class, implies some kind of directorial and literary genius, if not pure sorcery, that has obvious parallels with modern day “catfishing.” Regrettably, the show was pulled from the air after only 4 episodes. 

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