And the figures show that what I had seen in Paris is no longer the exception. The June issue of brandeins magazine tells us that 40% of British millennials now choose their holiday destination according to how well it will show up on Instagram – obviously always featuring the inevitable selfies.

The camera – an eye or a mirror?

The phenomenon of sightseeing-tourism and its banks of clicking cameras is nothing new. After all, the less time I have to familiarise myself with a place and really get to know it, the more important it is that I at least make a photo to prove that I was really there. Yet the exponential rise in the number of selfies posted on social media for me is a sign of new quality in the way we view reality, life and ourselves.  

It reminds me of the story of Narcissus whose vanity was punished when he saw his own reflection in a pool of water and fell so in love with it that he became completely fixated – without ever knowing that it was his own reflection in the water so that the object of his impossible desire was simply himself. That’s the punishment. Probably very few people now know that in the ancient world self-love (narcissism) was considered a punishment. It was Nemesis – some sources say Artemis – who dammed Narcissus to such unrequited love in his reflection. 

Some of the knowledge accumulated by the ancient Greeks has weathered well and at the very least is still a match for what we know now. And in this case they may even be well ahead of us since nobody nowadays would ever dream of the idea that narcissism could be the punishment for self-love. This makes the ancient story even more alluring when I think about the selfie mania we are now confronted with. 

When it comes to selfies what we are doing is using the camera to see ourselves like we do with a mirror. Yet a camera, as Wim Wenders puts it so well, should be an eye, through which a person looks out onto the world. 

I shouldn’t be seen by myself alone, I should be seen by EVERYBODY

Only we’ve gone a whole lot further now: we’re not satisfied with just gazing at ourselves lost in adulation, we want to share each and every one of our iconic selfies with the whole world. Yet when we do so, the world drops into the background, because the world is reduced to me. And the world is especially wonderful when I am seen by the maximum number of people who click me the greatest number of Likes. Or so the logic goes. 

Of course everyone is free to do just what they want. Even so, I do still wonder from what kind of a cultural reference frame this selfie cult(ure) has sprung. 

Being a star for a moment

“In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes”, said Andy Warhol prophetically back in the 1960s. He’d recognised that we’re moving into a media age when anybody can take on star allures just because they’ve made a short appearance on TV. Today, the television still has a certain role to play, but it’s the internet that enables everyone at any time across the entire globe to shout out: Hey look here, see just how cool I am and what cool things I do!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s fantastic that everyone can now share their ideas in blogs and podcasts and videos on YouTube or other platforms. It’s particularly beneficial to the great many young people whose artistic or technical gifts or skills in practical matters entertain other people or help them through the day. Earlier on, and far too often, all this knowledge and know-how was hidden away in private, ignored by publishing houses and agencies, and never saw the light of day. How good it is that things have changed!

And yet – if I’m drinking a latte macchiato somewhere in the world or eating a sushi – honestly, who on earth has really got to know this? Who’s interested? Certainly not posterity! Only those people out there just like me whose only concern is that their next selfie is better than mine and picks up more Likes.  It’s the affluent society in love with itself and brazenly flaunting its lifestyle. In love with itself without recognising that this is the only love it has. Just like Narcissus.

Digital trumps analogue?

Yet whatever motives might be feeding it, one thing for sure gets lost in this rampant selfie mania: the pleasure in the passing of a lovely moment and the confidence that the best always remains embedded in our memories.  

From time immemorial people have captured and preserved experiences, important events, and key figures in paintings and portraits – from the marvellous cave paintings of our ancestors over 30,000 years ago to the paintings, portraits and drawings of Dürer, da Vinci, Brueghel, Bosch and Goya. Then some 150 years ago the advent of photography opened up a host of new possibilities which are second nature for us today. 

Yet when people spend a large part of their lives searching for the best selfie pose and the best selfie background, and when their eyes are permanently riveted on the display of their smartphones, they lose the freedom to seize and take immense pleasure in such moments, to enjoy them fully just as they are without any ulterior purpose. In short, here the digital world trumps the analogue. 

I believe that we should use the possibilities offered us by the internet and digitalisation consciously and purposefully. But I also believe that the more we are enveloped by digital reality the more we will develop an equally strong need for experience in the analogue world. And I also have a definite hunch that our need for what’s original and what’s authentic will once more reaffirm itself. This makes me hopeful – even in times of the selfie mania. 

The article in Monopol Magazin was based on the rather dispiriting experiences made by its author Oliver Koerner von Gustorf at this year’s biennale. But it could easily have been talking about the whole of the present-day’s commercialised art scene.  

Decadent and self-centred

He details and criticises the whole system, from the works on exhibit to the art-makers, managers and potential buyers. Vapid works of art that say nothing but pretend to be meaningful to justify the astronomical prices at which they change hands.  Works that even if not for sale are at least eye-catchingly sensational and thus serve as extremely effective PR for the artists and their gallery agents. And form a perfect match to the codes, conduct and attitudes of the players of the established art world.  

They meet up at all these more or less important events and swell with self-importance at each visiting card they hand out. The biennale as a mere stage for pseudo-intellectual self-presentation. The art scene as a closed society. An exclusive celebration of decadence.  

There’s a lot of truth in this but really little that’s new. It’s a trend that has been in full swing for the past thirty years now, one that’s clearly recognisable by every unblinking critical eye that’s impervious to its poisoned blandishments. And it was precisely his acute awareness of such mechanisms that made OUBEY turn his back on the system after his first and highly successful sales exhibition in 1992. It was a very wise move. 

An air of exclusivity 

The whole system in its present form is only of interest to insiders – in other words the few who live within it and profit from it. I can only agree with the author of the article when he writes, “In the established art world the same rules apply to people that apply to the commodity of art. In one way or another they have to have an air of exclusivity, otherwise the system won’t work.” 

And I also agree with Elke Buhr, editor-in-chief of Monopol Magazin when she says, “Modern art is nothing less than what the art system presents as art. Works that have no label, that aren’t on display in some gallery or other, that aren’t part of an exhibition, that don’t bear the signature of some famous artist, are not considered as art.”

It’s interesting – and also rather paradoxal – that a magazine such as Monopol also forms part of the very system it so vehemently criticises. The question begging to be asked here is, does such insight also lead to self-awareness? And if it does, what consequences should be drawn? Or is such a blast of unanimous criticism an end in itself so that after everyone’s shaken their heads in doleful agreement at just how awful the art world really is, they all return to business as usual? 

Banksy undercover

I rather suspect that that’s exactly what they do.  

The art scene operates for financial benefit. Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this. Yet one of the side effects is that it is the instance that decides what is true significant art and what is not. Works that can’t be sold for astronomical prices are uninteresting and fade into insignificance.  

Such a system would have to self-destruct before it could recognise that living art has long been thriving outside of the “sacred halls” of the established art world. Sometimes it even crops up directly next door to them – as was the case at this year’s biennale.  

Banksy, the greatest street artist of our times, took the biennale as an opportunity for his latest action. He set up his own stall with pictures on the side of one of the canals and not one of the art experts realised that Banksy was there. This says more than a thousand words and shows just how startlingly blind they are to living art that takes place outside of the closed world of the art business. How dearly they would all love to assimilate this intractable artist and make him a player in their own game – the man whose works are auctioned for fantastic prices. Yet Banksy does his utmost to ensure that they never will. He won’t let them put a price tag on his success. Shunning the system, yet at the same time brilliantly exploiting its treacherous mechanisms, he’s forged his own way to celebrity. 

There are many people who make or have made art just as fascinating as Banksy’s. Yet none of them are as world-famous as he is. But that’s not the point. The point is to bring art into people’s lives in the places where they actually live, to inspire them, to make them think or to move them to action, or simply to give them great pleasure. It’s this unfiltered joy in art that is so special and we must never allow anything to get in the way of it – certainly not a biennale in Venice. That’s what I think. What about you? 

In 1983 the USA and Russia were engaged in a nuclear arms race and relations between the two great powers were at breaking point. So what happened? 

Red alert

On the evening of 23rd September 198, the Soviet satellite monitoring system  reported the launch of an American nuclear intercontinental missile against the USSR. The first report was shortly followed by further reports indicating that four more missiles had been launched.  

Had these missiles exploded on Russian soil, they would have wiped out the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. A Soviet countermove to intercept them might indeed have prevented their reaching Russia yet would certainly have provoked a retaliatory nuclear strike by the USA which could have unleashed the unimaginable cataclysm of a global nuclear war. Disaster seemed unstoppable. 

What to do? The answer to this question came not from the Kremlin but directly from the command center, from the officer on duty that night, lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov.  

Obedience or courage?

He choose to ignore both the orders set forth in Soviet military protocol and the reports of the radar system.  

Disobeying orders at the best of times is no easy matter and even in everyday private or professional life requires inner strength and a certain degree of courage. Yet in totalitarian systems like the Soviet Union, such courage is seen as resistance and is punishable. It comes with a high level of personal risk that people who live in a functioning constitutional state fortunately don’t know.  

Yet the principle of command and obey is found in all armies no matter in which political system they are embedded. There is no military system in the world that makes provision for such an unauthorized operative-level decision as the one Stanislav Petrov made on the evening of 23rd September 1983. Accordingly, in the opposite case, an American officer would unquestionably have found himself in a similar conflict of interest. 

A lonely decision

Stanislav Petrov didn’t refer the decision to his superiors as military protocol demanded. He stayed calm, thought it over, used logic and came to the conclusion that the data he had been given was wrong. “I don’t trust this computer”, he said and did nothing.  

An extremely courageous decision that probably saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. 

Because he was right. The alarm that he ignored was really a false alert, triggered by the software error of a Soviet spy satellite that had interpreted a sunrise and alignment of sunlight on high altitude clouds as a USA missile attack.  

An almost forgotten hero

The “error-free” system of the USSR wanted to spare itself the embarrassment of having to admit that it wasn’t that infallible after all Accordingly, Petrov wasn’t honored but reprimanded, dishonorably discharged and would have fallen into total obscurity had the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union proven more resistant. Yet with Perestroika and Glasnost his case came to public attention. Even so, he still hasn’t been rehabilitated.  

Petrov never saw himself as a hero. He always considered what he had done as pretty matter-of-fact. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, yet never received it. Only the substantial documentation on his case has kept his reputation alive long after his death.   

Making decisions is acting in uncertainty

Petrov’s decision could well have turned out to be the wrong one. Nothing in that critical moment gave him the certainty that he was doing the right thing. He trusted his own brain more than the computer. If he had been wrong, it would have entailed exactly those drastic consequences he was seeking to prevent. There was no cast-iron guarantee. Today we know that he made the right decision and we are grateful. 

The trouble with every difficult decision is that it always entails a slight degree of uncertainty. Because whether a decision is right or wrong can first be determined when its consequences – sooner or later – are revealed and become tangible. These consequences are irreversible. 

Whoever decides by themselves, whoever trusts their own mind and their own perspectives instead of blindly following rules and regulations, is moving on very shaky ground where no rulebook can guide them. 

So should we rather stick to the safe side? 

A partial answer to a momentous question

We all must find out the answer to this question for ourselves. Yet history encourages us with its countless examples, both small and big, of courageous correct decisions – from continuing to speak truth despite  public pressure to civil disobedience, from refusing to obey military orders that contravene human rights and the Geneva Convention to the equally power-conscious and consistent decision of an American president in the 1961 Cuba crisis.  

Steps forward and steps backward in this world are based on decisions, both large and small. Every day each one of us makes decisions which have an impact on others. We all bear responsibility for what we think and do. Nothing more and nothing less. Wouldn’t you agree? 

Continually making this clear to yourself and bearing it in mind is already a partial answer to the vexed question of the previous paragraph. At least that’s what I think. 

And in a combination of all these factors, we tend to overestimate the importance for us of what is big, loud and visible whilst simultaneously underestimating the importance for us of what is small, inaudible and invisible.

If we glance over the technological and industrial developments of the past 250 years and fix our attention particularly on the past twenty years, then these assertions assume a new and startling significance.

When I once spent several hours in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, my previous ideas about what was called the “First Industrial Revolution“ in Europe that took place in England 150-200 years ago and then spread were placed on a totally new footing by what I saw and learnt there.

Gigantic machines many meters high and many meters long, driven first by steam then by electric power, were lined up one against the other in the vast Power Hall. They are selected well-preserved examples representative of hundreds of their kind that were increasingly deployed in the wave of new factories that sprang up at that time.

What thoughts and feelings must the sight of such machines have evoked in the people of the 19th century who had never seen anything even remotely comparable to them before? People who up to then had lived by their own manual labour – whether working in the fields, in their own workshops or in manufacturing. How alien and how terrifying their first encounters with these monstrous clanking clattering machines must have been and how long it must have taken before people became accustomed to this new substance in their lives – not to mention the changes in their work and lives such machines brought with them which even today are still subsumed in the expression “Manchester Capitalism”.

This was radical brutal change. But above all else it was change that could be substantially apprehended by our physical senses. Change that, because it was visible, loud and large scale, could be apprehended by the human sensory system as it has developed over countless millennia. An enormous steam engine was recognisable for exactly what is was.

Today we stand on the threshold of another revolution determined by a new type of technology and machine which are no longer the huge self-evident monsters hissing steam, radiating heat and locking us into their rhythms. They are algorithms, invisible, inaudible yet immensely powerful mechanisms for which our sensory systems are not equipped to deal. Virtual worlds of no substance are emerging and at first glance we cannot recognise them for what they are. They don’t compel us, they seduce us. And so we stumble on from one snare to the next and yet still feel good, seeing ourselves as free beings living in a comfort zone.

Our species has created a world that lives from the shedding of substance. But what does that mean? Here we can call on Ludwig Wittgenstein from whose work the title of this blog is drawn: “If the world had no substance then whether a proposition had sense would depend on whether another proposition was true. It would then be impossible to form a picture of the world (true or false).” (From:Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 2.0211/2.0212).

When Paul Watzlawick was writing his brilliant book How Real is Real?  he had no notion of such a construction of reality. In a physically near imperceptible, very quiet, invisible yet immensely powerful way this new revolution is making us square up to the question of just how efficiently and how quickly can we develop and sharpen our system of sensory perception and our consciousness with the aim of dealing with these seemingly innocuous yet rapid currents of change in an intelligent and self-confident manner. The great confusion in which the real and the fake now contend is giving rise to an unprecedented loss of reality. Think of the Matrix film. Today there is no option other than that we continue to surrender information and data. Yet at the same time our knowledge and our awareness of such a development is expanding. And for as long as people are active in the game, no force will ever arise without producing its own counter-force.

The new age is still in its infancy. Its course will be set across the decades that lie before us.



Photo by Gerd Altmann, Public Domain (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universell))