Photographs used to be a passive storage device ... now, they are an active, ever-present form of exhibitionism, writes Terry Prone

IF YOU send me a photograph of your Christmas lunch this year, not joking you, I’m coming over there and after I arrive, it will not look as portrayed in your shot.

Not saying I will eat you out of house and home, particularly if you eat nasty birds like geese and ducks during the yuletide season.

I’m just going to turn your feast into Cuisine de Vandal. Potatoes ASBO.

Peas everywhere.

Point being that I have had it up to here with photographs of other people’s comestibles.

They arrive out of the blue, every day, sometimes without comment.

I don’t know whether I’m supposed to admire the clean eating of the sender or the layout of the food, but either defeats me.

I may love you to pieces, but I don’t honestly care if you live on sherry trifle perked up with garlic and chillies.

Plus, once you’ve seen one tiny tower of protein with something in a contrast colour drizzled over it, you’ve seen them all.

Tweet them and no doubt you’ll find a randomer to praise or excoriate you, but I really don’t have the time.

Or interest.

It’s a bit like the first time someone was trying to persuade me that, absent of a presence on Facebook, I would live a barren, isolated life.

Smartphone photos offer people another way to record themselves

“It’s great for sharing photographs of family,” my electronic evangelist told me, eyes shining at the very possibility.

The eyes dimmed slightly when I said I had no interest in photographs of anybody other than the man in my life and our son.

“But relatives and friends on holiday,” the evangelist persisted.

Eventually defeated, he snuck off out the door, bowed down under the little backpack all electronic evangelists wear constantly, crestfallen at the poverty of my familial engagement.

That was when I told him that sun-strewn shots of my sister, godson or cousins would bore me rigid.

I didn’t tell him that I have a secret conviction that the reason the economy looks as if it’s going to slow down isn’t Brexit or Trump, but the fact that so many people who should be productive are rotting their insides with envy of slimmer, tanner, more buffed second cousins pictured in Croatia at hen parties to which the viewer wasn’t invited.

Photographs used to be a passive storage device.

They were lovingly inserted into family albums using tiny triangular restraints at each corner, and they stayed put until someone came up with a good reason to bring out the album for viewing purposes.

Now, they are an active, ever-present form of exhibitionism.

Smartphone photos offer people another way to record themselves

Thousands of them lurk on every phone, just waiting for their chance to be inflicted on innocent bystanders.

It is tempting to believe that this constant photographic record of every moment of the average life is going to wreck the human memory, even more than it has been wrecked by the electronic storage of phone numbers. (Most of us used to know at least 10 crucial numbers.Now, I don’t even know the numbers of my nearest and dearest. In any setback, 999 is my first option.)

The problem with this theory of new inventions rotting our brain cells is that it is neither new nor supportable.

It was advanced by Socrates, four centuries before Christ.

In Phaedrus, ostensibly a conversation between the philosopher and his student, Plato, the two discussed the dangers posed by the invention of writing.

They worried at length about the damage writing would do.

Socrates called it ‘artificial memory’ suggesting that because writing had been developed, anybody could thereafter mechanically produce stuff that could be handed on to anybody else, unmediated.

It would go from one mind to another without the fact-checking possible in the spoken word.

“Once a thing is put in writing,” Plato (ironically) wrote.

“The composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting not only in the hands of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it. It doesn’t know how to address the right people and not address the wrong.”

How true — and elitist — are those words to this day. Except that today, the great fear is that social media can be used to misinform what Hillary Clinton called “the deplorables,” and we’re in the middle of a panic about controlling their access to technology that might attract them to people like The Donald.

Smartphone photos offer people another way to record themselves

 

The good thing is that there ARE no people like The Donald.

He is unique.

But the point stands.

Mark Kurlansky, author of a new history of paper, maintains naively denouncing the technology itself is pointless.

“Rather, you have to try to change the operation of the society for which the technology was created,” he says.

“For every new technology, there are detractors, those who see the new invention as destroying all that is good in the world... the arguments against the new technology [have always been] similar: the functioning of the human brain was imperilled, we would lose the power of our memories, human contact would be diminished, and the warmth of human engagement would be lost.”

Smartphone photos offer people another way to record themselves

Although Kurlansky never mentions photographs of stag and hen parties or plates of lunch, his book nonetheless sets such photographs in a wider context, claiming that the one truly unique human trait is the need people have to record.

“They record their deeds, their emotions, their thoughts, and their ideas... they have an impulse to record almost everything that enters their minds and to save it for future generations.”

If only they did save it for future generations, say I, instead of scatter-gunning it at people who never signed up for it but who feel the need to acknowledge it encouragingly with a thumbs-up icon they don’t mean.

This came up at the weekend when a new grandmother produced her smartphone to show me pictures of her granddaughter, who arrived three weeks ago.

I expected one or two photographs.

Maybe half a dozen.

Now, I’m not complaining.

But the fact is that all babies, save your own, look exactly the same and so an outsider ends up uttering bilge like: “Would you LOOK at the tiny hands?” while praying the slide show ends this side of Christmas.

Halfway through, I wondered aloud if taking all these pictures was necessary.

Mightn’t it destroy the real memory of the baby in its early days.

The grandmother favoured me with a look to die from and demanded to know precisely how many visual memories I retained of my first born in his early weeks.

The truth is that all I have is generalised mush overlain with sentimentality.

Generalised mush overlain with sentimentality has its place, but the picture-showing grandmother doesn’t think it’s much of a place.

She was able to show me the facial progression from newborn to three-week-old in a way I’d never before understood.

Snapping her phone into her pocket, she told me that this generation will have a great deal more than that, thanks to their constant recording of their lives.

I went looking for an emoticon indicative of surrender, but so far haven’t found one.


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