You ever take a selfie on your smartphone and think, “Damn, I look good?” As if somehow the stars have aligned to heighten your cheeks or bring a smidge more definition to your jaw or whatever—and for once you feel like you have undeniable evidence of your beauty? Well, you are still probably beautiful, but that smartphone selfie is a goddamn lie. Scared by this truth? Well, get used to it.
The quality and capacity of our smartphone cameras are constantly improving. But compared to actual high quality cameras, the tiny circles on our phones remain kind of shit. They’re physically incapable of taking those gorgeous photos of your eggs benedict or sleeping cat or yourself, which is why Instagram filters are so handy. To make up for the limits of smartphone lenses, phones use algorithms and an array of images you already have to produce the picture you want.
An example of this concept, known as computational photography, is the HDR option that appears on your phone when you are in camera mode. In HDR, the camera takes the same photo multiple times with different exposures and combines them, to put out an image that has the best parts of the photos. It can yield a great pic. It’s just that the image is not technically real.
In her 2017 book Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War, author Hito Steyerl describes another, more complicated and darker process by which images are constructed on our phones, as told to her by a smartphone camera developer:
[The camera] scans all other pictures stored on your phone or on your social media networks and sifts through your contacts. It analyzes the pictures you already took, or those that are associated with you, and it tries to match faces and shapes to link them back to you. By comparing what you and your network already photographed, the algorithm guesses what you might have wanted to photograph now.
The genius of the technology is that usually, it gives you a damn good guess.
The result might be a picture of something that never ever existed, but that the algorithm thinks you might like to see. This type of photography is speculative and relational.
The implications of this are widespread, and not to go all Susan Sontag, but they disrupt our view of photography as an extension of reality. Our society’s conception of beauty may be more open, evolving, and accessible than ever before, but it is still infiltrated by the sheer weight of the standards that we’ve pitted ourselves against. (Also the weight of “Brad Pitt’s perfectly symmetrical face.”) We already manually manipulate the data. We tilt our phones and find our angles to accentuate or create features that have been deemed attractive. We delete unflattering photos. So when we “take” pictures of ourselves, our phones are pulling from an ever-narrowing list—not necessarily of our preferences, but of, like, society’s preferences, man.
You may think that selfies are a powerful tool of self-affirmation rooted in the radical acceptance of, uh, our frivolous vanities. But unfortunately they are not photographs of us. They are digital manifestations of what we want to see, contoured and highlighted by the beauty standards we subconsciously subscribe to. And not in a metaphorical way. LITERALLY OUR PHONES DON’T TAKE PICTURES. THEY CONSTRUCT THEM! IS THIS WHY I LOOK FUCKED UP IN OTHER PEOPLE’S PHOTOS? BECAUSE THEIR PHONES DON’T KNOW THAT I PREFER TO LOOK LIKE AN AMAZONIAN PRIESTESS WITH THE PERFECT BED HEAD, AND SO IPHONES ARE LIKE LIKE OH, COOL YOU ORDERED A MUSHROOM FACE/HEAD? GREAT, HERE YOU GO.
And the future of this technology is only going to get weirder. Like maybe, as this one Verge article suggests, in the future, there just WON’T BE ANY CAMERAS, just images pulled from data!! In the future, ugly people like you and me will just be posting hot-ass pics of ourselves that are increasingly idealistic—no lens needed!!
Well, if you’re as concerned as I am about the data-reaping this probably requires but more importantly NOT LOOKING UNREALISTICALLY PRETTY, then throw out your phones! We’re getting off the grid and its machinations of beauty. Macaroni self-portraits and hand puppets only from now on!