Civilization In The Time Of Selfies : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture News reports this week told of photos of naked celebrities that were stolen and posted online. Separately, we learned that even Neanderthal man made pictures. Why are these images so important?
NPR logo Civilization In The Time Of Selfies

Civilization In The Time Of Selfies

iStock
The selfie.
iStock

According to a paper just published in the PNAS, our Neanderthal cousins made pictures.

Or at least they found reason to use stone implements to carve shapes onto the surfaces of cave walls. This was hard work requiring hundreds of scrapes. Whether compositions of lines of this sort should be thought of as images, or pictures, or as proto-pictures, of this we can be sure — making them was a deliberate act and it was important to someone.

About the cave paintings made by our own human ancestors some 30,000 years ago in Spain and France we can make a similar statement. These specific, convincing renditions of animals and other forms are not spontaneous expressions but are manifestly the result of careful manufacture by skilled artisans.

A striking thing about these prehistoric human paintings is that they seem to have been private. For all their grandeur, they were hidden deep inside unlit caverns; only a person willing to crawl and climb, carrying a torch, would have been able to inspect them.

Which brings me to the present day.

My first reaction when I heard that Jennifer Lawrence's private cloud-based photo stash had been hacked and that there were now naked pictures of her up all over the Internet was, "Who's Jennifer Lawrence?"

But once I got beyond that particular stumbling block, I found myself thinking:

We've come a long way, from the secluded Caves of Lascaux to Jennifer Lawrence's digital cloud, from the hard labor of ancient carvers and painters to the selfies of contemporary life.

But perhaps this path from ancient picture making to the selfie is understandable.

Pictures, we are only beginning to realize, have a life of their own; they exert an awesome power over us. With the manufacture of those first ancient pictures we let the genie out of the bottle.

The thing is, pictures don't merely record the visible world. They change the way we see that world. For we now see things always by the light of how they would look in pictures. This is why we stand before a sunset and say, "How very like a painting!"

Pictures, over historical time, have come to dominate not only how we see sunsets, but how we see — and think and feel about — ourselves.

This is the reason why affluent people plaster their houses with mirrors: Mirrors give you clues as to how you would look in a picture were someone to take the time to make a picture of you.

And this is why you see people pivot on the balls of their feet to catch a glimpse of their rear-ends, or suck in their guts, as they walk by what we call picture windows.

In the age of the selfie, the mirror loses its importance. We don't need would-be pictures, reflections, when we've got selfie-technology.

What is a celebrity but a person whose very being, at least in our imagination, is exhausted by the different ways he or she has been captured in images? In selfie-culture, especially thanks to social media, we can all make ourselves into celebrities. We can all curate our own selves according to self-produced images. We can make ourselves real by faking ourselves in pictures.

I passed a young woman with (what I took to be) her very old grandparents on the street the other day. She was explaining loudly, as if to idiots, "You see? Taking a picture wasn't so bad! It took just a second and now we've laid down a memory."

This was poignant. I wondered: Will she ever look at that phone pic again? Maybe only once these old people are dead.

But anyway, it is a mistake, I think, that we take pictures to lay down memories. We take pictures now so that we can have any experiences at all. As the reality of the sunset is measured by its likeness to an imaginary painting, so we have come to feel that nothing is real, not really, until we have snapped pictures of ourselves in the course of doing it.

This brings us to a second way in which pictures seem to have a life of their own. It isn't just that they transform how we see, they demand of us that we make more and more of them.

No moment is a Kodak moment, though, if every moment is a Kodak moment. Pretty soon we'll need to take pictures of our pictures to keep track of which are the ones worth looking at it. And then we're in the position of the character in the Borges story whose map to a country is useless because it's made to the very scale of the country itself.

There's been a lot written about the theft of Jennifer Lawrence's photos and also those of dozens of other famous people. There's lots of triggers here — women, nakedness, privacy, celebrity, the violation of all of the above in an act of theft, the unwanted dissemination of photos — so it shouldn't be a surprise that we find ourselves preoccupied.

But maybe our real concern, the true anxiety that animates our interest in this story, is with pictures and their complicated power over us and their role in our lives. We, and our nearest humanoid relatives, have been obsessed with pictures for thousands of years.


You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe