With the internet now less something that we use than live, it’s curious to look back from the privileged viewing position of the here-and-now at the way ‘cyberspace’ was thought about a couple of decades ago. Often written in prose that was almost open mouthed in its wonder, marvelling at the anticipation of- as Nicole Stenger put it in 1991- ‘a space for collective restoration, and for peace’, such dreamy optimism was offset by a tendency in others to take a rather more gloomy view of where digital technologies would lead us. In 1996, ‘panic theorists’ Arthur and Marilouise Kroker spoke of the coming of a ‘virtual elite [with] the ethics of the hangman’ and, even more chillingly, ‘the human species as a humiliated subject of digital culture’. Anyone who’s dared to offer a comment below a YouTube video may well wonder exactly how much collective restoration and peace the internet has actually prompted, and if you’ve ever been lax in your combination of social media and alcohol then the Krokers’ point about humiliation mightn’t be the doomy overstatement that it can first seem.
Regardless of the tenor of yesteryear’s speculations, we’ve come to invest a lot of trust in digital technologies and the internet over the last 20-odd years and routinely use them to work, play, talk, love, hate, listen, watch, learn, make…. At the same time, the internet has been increasingly colonised and moulded by the Big Money; the unpredictability of its early days giving way to greater regulation, order and control. We’ve certainly been afforded an unprecedented ability to communicate, upload, share, and do plenty of things that might even bear out some of the Utopian views of old, but it’s hard to ignore how increasingly we- in John Naughton’s rather bleak words- ‘can only do so courtesy of the giant corporations that own and control the platforms… and which are reconfiguring the network for their purposes rather than ours.’ When you factor in Edward Snowden’s ‘revelations’ about privacy and surveillance, the idea of the internet simultaneously ‘belonging’ to everybody and nobody seems like one that belongs to a very different, more innocent age.
This all resonates in Tom Stayte’s work. A photographer who seems to realise that digital culture has triggered enough of an avalanche of images without him needing to add to the pile, his #selfie project- which opens at Sheffield’s Bank Street Arts in February– consists entirely of photographs snapped by strangers. Taking the humble ‘selfie’, the era-defining arm’s-length self-portrait, Stayte uses it as a starting point to consider our willingness to trust what we don’t necessarily understand and the notion of individuality in post-digital society. Using custom-built software, the publicly available RSS feeds provided by Instagram are accessed and imagery tagged ‘#selfie’ is appropriated more or less immediately after it is published. Open source facial recognition libraries then scan the images to identify instances of single person, arm’s length portraits. These are then printed on a roll of paper by a small, no-frills printer before being sliced off and dropped to the floor to join a pile that, over the course of the show’s 3 week run, could number anything up to 80,000 images.
Standing next to #selfie as it patiently yet relentlessly clicks, whirs and spews out yet another smiling or pouting face is a startling experience that provides fairly compelling evidence of the extent to which we routinely use digital technologies to ‘reach out’ to the wider world, and put our trust in those that supply us with the means to do so. While in one sense the whole point of uploading stuff to the internet is so that other people can be affected by us in some way, #selfie cares little for our vanities, and simply dumps us on the floor alongside the thousands of others who’ve no idea of what they’re participating in, clinically exposing how our desire to be unique only really reveals our similarities…
#selfie opens at Bank Street Arts on 4th February and runs until the 21st.