“There’s a rule of thumb you can count on in each succeeding version of the web 2.0 movement: the more radical and online social experiment is claimed to be, the more conservative, nostalgic, and familiar the result will actually be.”
—Jaron Lanier, from You Are Not A Gadget
I’ve been thinking lately why it is I don’t like Instagram (or Hipstamatic). On its face it is a simple photography app that allows you to share the photo’s you take from your smartphone to a larger social network. Recently the founders of the company, Kevin Systrom, 28 and Mike Krieger, 25 sold Instragram to Facebook for $1bn. In two short years the two managed to take the idea from zero to 30 million users.
Rather than delve into the history of photography and its social relevance or our connection to gadgetry I thought I would simply touch upon the overarching issues that I find unsettling with the adoption of an app like Instagram.
- Second-order expression. In Lanier’s brilliant manifesto quoted above he talks about the two forms of expression. Primary expression is a singular idea (obviously formed through the artist/inventor’s relation to society and culture) producing a unique set of ideas. Secondary expression on the other hand, is a riff on the former. Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey is a clear example of first order expression, along with Arthur C. Clark’s book (and whom consulted on the making of the film). Second-order expression is the Apple commercial referencing Kubrick’s original film. It is an ironic gesture that inverts artificial intelligence as a mechanism that is suggested to be inherent in an Apple computer in the positive. The original film of course, is a conversation on ontology, not reliability. Second order expressions undermine not only their original references but the meaningfulness of expression as a whole, because they cheapen the act and force all first order expressions into ironic loops.
- Nostalgia. The word has roots in the Greek but was originally coined by the 1688 doctor Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation. Nostalgia was not born of the poetic but the medical and was created to describe an affliction. Patients suffering from nostalgia were said to produce “erroneous representations” and acquired a “lifeless and haggard countenance” and “indifference toward everything.” Today, by some estimates, half of all the bits carried across the internet reference Television. Photography is as Susan Sontage said, memento mori in and of itself. Why is it necessary then to flavor it immediately with the countenance of the past? Is the present so objectionable in its presence that we must immediately stain it with a faux historical tint? Aren’t smartphones supposed to provide us access to greater insight in order to advance ourselves as a culture, as human beings? Instead they’ve become sophisticated toys that serve as tools for further distancing ourselves from the problems and challenges of our present being. What is Hipstamatic adding to the conversation?
- Fascism. Some will undoubtedly find it extreme that I am bringing politics and especially fascism into play when talking about a simple phone app, but I don’t find it so. Fascism as a socio-political dynamic has a way of creeping up on us. It doesn’t just jump out of the woodwork and assert itself. Our particular brand of soft-fascism lacks allegiance to a particular ideology and instead supports a deeply flawed consumer spending based form of unbalanced capitalism. Instagram is a particular celebration of this as it simultaneously emphasizes the accumulation of wealth (in the founders receiving $1bn) and the reinforcement of an idealized past (various Instagram filters). The multiplying effect comes in its immediate social connectivity and broadcast across a global communications platform, the internet. In Lawrence Britt’s 14 Characteristics of Fascism, the eleventh is: “Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts…Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts.” I don’t think it is a stretch, especially in light of Jared Lanier’s book, to suggest that Instagram undermines free expression and creates an anti-intellectual skew on art production. All you have to do is apply x filter to y photograph, and boom, instant art all of your friends who comment on it as beautiful, lovely and awesome. Instagram in broad strokes reinforces amateurism in art-making. Schlock replaces fine art.
At the end of the day I don’t like Instagram (or Hipstamatic) because it undermines my own life’s work — art making. This is not to say I think those of you who use Instagram are fascists or hate art. Obviously I’m in a minority here and many people I hold dear use the app. On the contrary. What I think is, we’ve all become artistically lazy. The experience of our daily lives is so manufactured it is hard to see beyond that which is prepackaged and neatly delivered to us. The artist Lucas Samaras began ‘breaking’ Polaroid cameras in the 70’s in order to force unexpected results with the photographs those cameras made. The results are often stunning. Someone needs to start ‘breaking’ Facebook, Instagram and other social mechanisms as a way of regaining our creativity and our real sense of identity. We must learn to program so that we can participate in the design of the world in which we currently live rather than remain passive participants in someone else’s design, often in the service of a profit based enterprise. We should not fall victims to “indifference toward everything” and the immediacy of candy-coated pretty photographs.