Selfies are all the rage… but it is tempting to dismiss them as a passing fad, or worse, yet another example of a narcissistic society obsessed with instant gratification and instantaneous fame. But the selfie is important because it is not just a portrait of our selves, but a portrait of our times as well.
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Over the past fifteen years technology has changed our world. It has yanked power out of the hands of media owners and governments, and placed it in the hands of the general public. It is democratising everything. The selfie is a product of this shifting dynamic and it is symbolic of our new, empowered citizenry. Today, almost everyone has access to a camera-phone and the ability to share their photographs with a global audience.
In the past, portraits were reserved for royalty and those in power, but today the common people pictured in these selfies are the people-in-power and this is their preferred style of portraiture. Every selfie taken, regardless of how trivial it may seem, is a proud declaration of our connected generation’s new-found ability to communicate in a free and frictionless manner.
It is also tempting to underestimate the importance of the selfie because of the throwaway manner in which it is used. But the selfie’s disposable nature is significant because it represents a society in which the value of information is no longer determined by its permanence, but by its transience.
In the past, the world’s knowledge was preserved in leather-bound books, but today it is spurted-out in the form of 140-character tweets that flow like rivers of rainwater towards an ocean of infinite knowledge. We live in a world where art and wisdom are no longer to be found only in museums and books, but within the fabric of our ever-expanding collective consciousness – a consciousness increasingly comprised of transient digital content like selfies.
But for me, the most significant aspect of the selfie is the fact that it is a profound reflection of humankind’s increasing intimacy with technology. According to author and inventor, Ray Kurzweil, humankind is rapidly moving towards a “Singularity” – a point of convergence between human and machine.
Kurzweil believes that when Artificial Intelligence finally surpasses human intelligence, we will be forced to merge with technology. He refers to life beyond this point as Transhumanism. While one may find these predictions far-fetched, a quick inventory of our daily tech usage indicates that we are indeed headed along this trajectory.
The selfie marks an important step on this journey, because it is a symbolic reflection of our gradual convergence with the machine. If Kurzweil’s theories do indeed prove to be true, then the selfie can provide us with a glimpse of what this co-evolved human/machine consciousness may look like.
In a world of Transhumanism, the subject of a portrait and the tool with which that portrait is made, will become one. The painter will, in effect, become the paintbrush. The photographer will become the camera. We will become both subject and object… and that will change the nature of “the self” and of portraiture forever.
So, next time you take a selfie, look deep into your lens and you may discover that your reflection is in fact a projection of your future self.