Posts Tagged ‘instagram’

Photographers are complaining about Instagram. They’ve spent years cultivating, and indeed buying, followers, and they’ve enjoyed watching the number of “likes” they get, soar. They’ve reached the point where they can put up a picture of a bent, rusty nail and tens of thousands will see it and like it. They feel epic. Hundreds are flocking to their linked web-sites, clamouring to buy prints of their work – they say. Life is good.

But then Instagram’s algorithm changes. Suddenly they’re lucky if they’re getting a hundred hits, and their entire business model collapses. It means anyone with an old Android phone can now put up a wonky snap of a girl in her underwear, and it’ll easily trump the pernickety artisan’s rusty nail pictures, taken with his pro-camera gear. I sympathise, but are we really surprised?

As an amateur photographer, I’ve enjoyed Instagram. It took a while for my pictures to gain any kind of traction, but eventually you find a group of like-minded people, follow them, and they follow you and, without gaming the system, your pictures are getting liked, and you’re swapping comments in that social media kind of way. Personally, I’ve not noticed a collapse in my support, but then I’m not selling anything. True I could get more attention if I started putting up pictures of girls in their underwear, instead of trees, I mean if it’s the popularity I crave, which I suppose it is. But not that way.

Of course, you can argue Instagram is more of a lifestyle blogging, “influencer” social media thing, anyway, and was never intended to be infiltrated by serious photographers. There are better places for them to put their stuff, I suppose. I don’t know. It depends on what you mean by serious.

Photographers using Instagram, amateur or otherwise, lifestyle influencer or otherwise, produce original content – the stuff that’s worth looking at – for Instagram to then pepper with adverts. In other words, on social media sites, it’s not about us at all. It’s about ad-revenue and selling stuff. True, without us, there’d only be adverts, and no one would be looking at them. But we avail ourselves of a free service for our own ends – whatever they may be – and we can’t complain when we have no say in how the platform is run.

I’ve been on Instagram for many years, and it’s not made me famous. The idea was to lure people across to the blog, and my books, but it rarely does. What it has done though is introduce me to parts of the world others have found worth photographing, and has inspired me to put them on my list of places to visit, also to up my game in terms of picture taking. As an enthusiastic amateur, I’ve derived a great deal of pleasure from it, so I’m not of a mind to quit the platform in a huff.

But what other options are there for the huff-taken photographer? Well there’s Flikr of course. Flikr’s been around since the year dot. While Instagram was originally aimed at spontaneous quick-snapping phone photographers, Flikr was more for your enthusiast or professional, with a proper camera. You’re not limited to the low-res format of Instagram, and you can use it to store images for yourself and others to download (presently up to a 1000). Flikr offers a free (ad supported) account, or a paid Pro account, costing around a fiver per month. Personally I’ve found it a bit of a wilderness though. I’ve had pictures on there for years, and they’ve attracted no visitors – I really don’t know what the secret is.

Which brings us finally to YouPic [Y]. Like Flikr, YouPic is aimed at the enthusiast and the professional photographer. Pro prices start at around £10 a month, but again there is a free option, which comes without the frills, and it limits you to just one upload per day. That sounds a bit tight, but if you’re spending time post-processing a picture to get it looking awesome, you’re not going to be churning them out. It makes you selective, and I’m happy with that.

There also a “gamey” feature where you gain points as you go along, though I’m not entirely clear for what yet, nor how many levels there are (I’m currently at level 6 but if that means dunce or demi-god, I don’t know). I’ve tried a few recent pictures on there, and the immediate response has been surprisingly positive, with lots of views and comments, and, significantly, no adverts. It remains to be seen if this level of exposure continues, or if it’s just a teaser to lure you in, and will tail off over the coming weeks. But, so far, I’m impressed. Naturally, the paid members get greater exposure, and fair enough. The quality of photography on there is generally very high.

But why showcase our pictures anyway? Is it not a bit, “look at me”? As always, there is a danger in chasing the fake approval of the “like” button. But we’re also social creatures, and like to share our experiences. And a photograph is an experience. “Here, I saw this. What do you think?” It’s partly to affirm our own existence, but also to seek connection with those who are like-minded. Decades ago, the amateur photographer was sending his transparencies to the photography or the walking magazines, in the hope of publication. Or he was a club member, entering competitions and putting on exhibitions. Those are still options of course, but I found the magazines were a dead loss, and the clubs were cliquey. Online suits me fine.

Which is the best platform for sharing photography? Probably the one I’ve yet to discover. But of the three listed above, they all have their pros and cons. Use them all, but don’t expect them to make you a famous photographer. That’s more of a calling and, as with any other art, it requires a single-minded approach with unassailable levels of enthusiasm, self belief, as well as superlative levels of skill. And not a little luck.

Happy snapping.

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThere’s a weird collective guilt taking hold on Instagram. Have you noticed? Everyone’s at pains to say the picture they took was within an hour’s walk of their doorstep. They were out exercising. Walking the dog. That pretty waterfall? The misty hill? The ferny dell? It was all legal. Honest. No one wants to be that idiot flouting the rules. No one wants to be accused of making unnecessary journeys, enjoying themselves for the sake of it.

Me? I’ve stuck to my garden. Aren’t I virtuous? I’ve done Qigong, I’ve weeded the borders and I’ve cleaned the car. And when it goes dark, I turn to the Internet as usual. Here my history catches up with me, directing me to a couple of gurus with advice on staying sane. The first is Eckhart Tolle. He speaks of approaching things from the ego-less perspective. He prefaces his talk with a line from Shakespeare:

“There is nothing either good or bad, only thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet)

Which is a fair point. This damned crisis is an event, no doubt about that. But then, there’s no sense adding to it by letting the mind run riot over all the negative possibilities. One day at a time. Breathe.

Okay, so Tolle’s not for everyone, but he certainly gives me pause.

The other guru is the artist David Hockney. He’s seeing out the crisis in rural France and suggests we don’t take photographs, that we draw instead. I know what he means. Photographs rarely capture what we see. Worse, we can manipulate them into something that was never there in the first place. But when you draw a thing, you establish a relationship with it and you remember it for ever. And everyone can draw. You never hear a kid say they can’t draw. So be a kid again, and draw. I’m drawing more, and since I started, I have begun to dream more. Weird. My dreams are seductive, mysterious. They are a place worth the sleeping for.

Some of my correspondents hope this pause in the frenetic pace of human affairs will act like a reset button. Perhaps afterwards, they say, things will not go back to normal. We’ll find time to catch our breath, find a better way of living. We are all agreed this is unlikely. Worse, I fear there is a danger my fellow Instagrammers will not venture from their doorsteps again without asking: is my journey necessary? What right have I to this moment in time? What right have I to seek the sublime in this beautiful view?

At present, our collective necessity revolves around work and food. But that’s a narrow measure of what it means to be alive. As we’re all discovering, so much of what defines us is intangible and completely beyond that which is materially essential, yet it’s there we find what is most valuable in ourselves.

So let’s stop with the guilt. It’s not our fault the health service is ruined. Not our fault there are no ventilators. Not our fault clinicians are working in infectious environments, without protective equipment. Or is it? It depends which way we’ve been voting this past ten years. In which case we’re getting everything we deserve, and we should think hard about that for when we return to the world as citizens instead of rabbits, hiding in our holes.

But for now let’s all remember how the truly necessary journeys we make in life may not be the ones we think they are.  And to my fellow Instagrammers I say rest easy and stop with the excuses. That picture of a hill? The waterfall? The ferny dell? It’s on your doorstep. Or you took it last year. I know. It’s beautiful. I trust you. Enjoy.

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I fell out with the Single Lens Reflex Camera around the time digital was invented, found myself leaving the thing behind. It was a Pentax P70 with a medium zoom lens. It must have weighed over a Kilogram, and I was for travelling to places much lighter by then, and returning less tired. So I snapped the nineties and the noughties on a range of digital compacts, of increasing pixel count, cameras that travelled discretely in the pocket.

My family like the shots that have their faces in them. The rest, the scenic shots, the still lifes, are all neatly catalogued and backed up but, like my old Kodachrome slides from the 80’s, I rarely bother browsing them. Such is the lot of the amateur photographer, forever in search of that profound image, and nobody to show it to who gives a damn anyway. I sometimes snap myself, or have others do it for me, but then wonder what the Hell I’m thinking.

Mostly I prefer to be out of shot.

The current compact is a Canon G12, a worthy device, at the upper end of the market – or rather it was when I bought it – things move on so quickly these days. I took this picture of some conkers with it:

conkersWhy? Well, who can resist a conker? I like the colours, the autumn feel, which I amplified a little in Painshop. It conjures memories of childhood, schoolyard conker fights, the oily sheen when you first crack them open.

It was an arranged shot, the conkers recovered from a pile of leaf mould, and posed, so to speak. I extended the zoom to maximum, and set the broadest aperture I could, given the available light in order to isolate the subject and blur the background. I like the effect, but for all of that, I don’t suppose it’ll mean much to my great-great grandchildren who’ll be faced with the dilemma of continuing to archive great-great grandad Michael’s conker picture, or just deleting the damned thing. After all – I mean – what on earth was he thinking? Experience of past post-mortem clear-outs tells me only faces will be preserved, and maybe not even those, if names have already been forgotten.

Second exhibit: picture of a tree, green pasture, sheep, starburst sun:

treeoflifepicIt was the shadow of the tree that struck me here, almost reflection-like in quality. It put me in mind of the symbolic “tree of life”, the branches mirrored by its roots. I took it with a digital SLR, a Nikon D5600, with a medium zoom, which, like that earlier SLR camera must weigh over a kilogram again, and I’m wondering how much use it will see, because I still like to travel light. Purists won’t like the starburst, which is more of a lens artifact than artistically intended, though paradoxically you can buy filters to achieve the same effect.

The camera is new – bought it recently. It has a much bigger sensor than the G12, and twice the resolution. It delivers greater dynamic range, depth of colour, and a clearer, sharper image, but these things are only apparent if you’re particular about what you’re looking for. If you’re not, you might as well just use the camera on your phone, which, if it was made in the last few years, is probably pretty good anyway. This is called tech-talk and it always runs the risk of devouring itself, photography then becoming more about the device than the image, and that’s certainly the way it is with many photography enthusiasts. They talk intelligently and endlessly about aperture, ISO and lens distortions, but I always find their pictures rather dull.

Perhaps they’d feel the same about my conkers.

It could be a question of transience of course. It’s possible my tree of life will light up in a similar way at some point in the future, as it has in the past, but more likely the next time I pass it, it’ll be completely different. The conkers are unique, that moment – all be it somewhat staged – is gone for ever, but we can say the same for any image – even that gormless one of you propping up the Tower of Pisa.

But we may be on to something here, the power of an image lying in the unlikelihood of that moment ever occurring again, but it has to go beyond the mere documentary. The image has to touch the soul of the beholder in ways that to merely bear witness to that same event does not.

Food for thought, and happy snapping.

Thanks for listening.

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canon g12

Browsing Instagram it strikes me there are two kinds of people. There are those who see the world around them, and there are those who see themselves. There are the selfies and the worldies. I think of myself as a worldie, but does that make me any less narcissistic than the selfie?

Had I more youth and muscle and hair, I’d probably show off a bit, post myself atop Napes Needle, hands on head, balancing on one leg for all to go: Gorrrr-blimeee look at i’m! I too might have been an insta-fool, for sure!

But to become self aware is to disappear from the frame, rather than the alternative, which is more of an attempt to confirm our existence, and its validity, to say nothing of its coolness, as evidenced by our goofy grinning visage superimposed upon whatever monumental backdrop we find most impressive. But what is it that impresses us about an event or a scene? And why do we have to be pictured in it? It’s obvious we were there, because we remember it and took the photograph, so who else are we trying to impress by squeezing ourselves into shot as well?

As a young man I lugged a 35mm Single Lens Reflex camera up every peak in the Lake District, bar few. I was proving something to myself, walking, mostly alone, a reticent, anxiety prone individual, bluffing his way up the big beasts and around the classic routes. I have all those expeditions recorded and painstakingly labelled for posterity on Kodachrome slides. But they moulder slowly in dusty boxes now, and are rarely viewed. Memory then becomes the favoured means of ready recollection, blurred somewhat by internal and unconscious bias. So much for lugging all that weight up all those hills!

I’ve never been photographed, or taken photographs in China, because I’ve never been there. The memories are lacking because they don’t exist, but if they did, how secure would they be in the hands of old age anyway? How important are those neglected shots on ancient hard drives or buried deep in the sedimentary layers of Instagram?

Apparently, not much.

The evidence of our true presence in the world is more than skin deep; it doesn’t matter if you know I’ve been to China or to the top of Ben Nevis, or not. The evidence of a life’s experience can be measured only in terms of its effect upon the psyche, and the development of individual, and such things are glacially slow in their effect – hardly the work of an instant. In these terms then, most photographs of faces in the scene tell us nothing.

I see tourists armed with video recording equipment, capturing every last moment of a visit, too busy with the recording of it to pay much heed to the visit itself. Thus the experience becomes that of recording, rather than of being. The recording is a record of itself and, like in a hall of mirrors, vanishes off into infinite oblivion.

Why do we camera bearers think it so important to get the shot? Is it really just to impress our friends? Surely, there’s more! After all, there are images that are immediately arresting, hold us in profound stillness, humble us, make us think! But is it worth all that effort and a million snaps of crazy cats and goofy grins, for that one meaningful image to emerge from an otherwise dull collection?

I suppose it must be. It’s what the pros can pull off, if not with ease, then at least more often than the rest of us. And that’s why I persevere with, and why I love my cameras.

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loversI took a dip into the world of Instagram poetry, fell promptly headlong into the purple prose of a million broken hearts. Clearly I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young. To be sure it’s a terrible thing, this compulsion we have to seek completion in another human being, and to have them seek a reciprocal completion in us. And like all compulsions it’s such a rich ground for disaster, for rejection, for betrayal, for the object of one’s desire not to return one’s feelings, or even know one exists. Okay,… so I’ve been there, written plenty for that genre in the past. Fortunately though there was no Internet in those days and a Boots’ diary had to suffice.

If I’d had the Internet back than, it would have been tempting of course to lay my heart bare, as many young ‘uns obviously do today, either as a plea for mercy, revenge against the one who did or did not love me, or as a beating of my chest and gnashing of teeth to Aphrodite. But I’d also like to think even my younger self would have recognised the indignity in such a thing. When relationships backfire, for whatever reason, and no matter how mouthy or cutting the other party gets, a gentleman is always better keeping his own counsel.

This is not to say love is not a beautiful thing, for a man in love sees the world differently. He can describe it from a heightened state of consciousness, a world that bears no resemblance to the same one described through shades of depression. But try as I might I could not find poetry like that on Instagram, only the petulant and possibly inebriated jottings of a million midnight Bridget Jones’s, lamenting the ups and downs (mainly downs) of their thing for Mr Darcy. As a forum for my own words then, I feel somewhat out of place, a veritable crustacean tiptoeing through a frightful wail of the fretful and the tenderly aged.

My apologies if one of those bleeding heart poems was yours, but I can assure you, at some point you’ll get hitched, you’ll find “the one” and hopefully have children with them, and then your life will change. You’ll have other things to worry about, to pine about, to cry about, and if you still possess the urge, it’s thus the poetry will change throughout the summer and the autumn and finally the winter of your life.

Like those teens posting their fevered “I love you’s”, it’s still a desire for connection, for completion that drives us in later life. But the love felt by youth is more a cunning deceit of Nature to get us to pair off and make babies. What we seek to connect with, actually, we find only to a small degree in others, and the younger we are the more we are likely to mistake it for the real thing and grow dissatisfied by it. The real thing is the mystery of Nature itself, the mystery of life. The hunt for it is an existential quest, and there are no reliable pathways leading to it from the material world. Instead, we must rely on imagination, conjuring up those parts of ourselves we would perhaps otherwise be afraid to be seen out with in public.

The love poem is of infinite value to its author of course, but unless it opens the reader up to more than the author’s misery, there is little of broader worth in it, only the author’s future embarrassment when things finally pick up and he looks back on the bad times. I’m glad I kept mine private.

For me the poet is someone wandering that great tideline of the world after the ebb. Indeed a beach is the ultimate metaphor for this mysterious liminal zone, the mysterious line between reality and imagination. Now and then we come across a curiosity washed up, say a bit of smooth-worn driftwood. We revel in its shape and its exquisite feel as we turn it in our hands. We cannot describe the forces that have shaped it, yet in the feel of it we intuit the nature of something divinely beautiful, far beyond our understanding. Then we turn to our companion, our imaginary reader, and we say “Wow, what do you think of this?”

Relationships confer a degree of self reflection, but it’s not the essential thing. After all, there’s no point being in love if you’re rendered suddenly blind to everything else that’s going on.

Oh my heart is like a red-red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June,
If I could only say the same for yours,
I’d be humming a different tune.



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thumbnailOnline social media highlights and exploits our universal human vulnerability, that we all want to be someone. We all want to be recognised, liked, admired, and generally believed to be an awesome human being because we think that, in the acceptance of our awesomeness, we’ll find escape from the horror of anonymity and obscurity in the face of inevitable death. Of course it won’t work.

We are none of us really anybody in this narrow sense. Even those admired and cow-towed to are no different to anyone else. They have their own problems, their own duel with death, one they’ll eventually lose like the rest of us. Then they’ll be forgotten, and even so little as a hundred years from now, no one will care. Many a good and talented man has gone to his grave unknown. It’s a sobering realisation, one we must face and understand why an obscure life is not necessarily a wasted one.

One of the pictures I recently put up on Instagram got forty likes. Experience tells me it’ll not get many more. It’s a about my limit, and seems to be a function of the number of people you follow and the amount of time you’re willing to spend liking other stuff, or somehow gaming the system. But it’s no big deal. It is, after all, just a picture of a hat. Sure, pictures of other people’s hats can garner tens of thousands of likes, and how they do that remains a mystery to me, but it’s still just a picture of a hat and as such will never confer immortality.

My Instagram account leaks a few clicks over to the blog, which in turn leaks a few clicks over to my fiction, which is why I’m on Instagram in the first place. It’s also why I blog. They are both subtle lures to my fiction writings, coaxing readers now and them into my fictional worlds. But my stories are not important either, at least not as influential tools to shape the zeitgeist, nor even just to trumpet my awesomeness. I leave that to others, more savvy, sassy, whatever, and dare I say, more celebrated for their craft.

My thoughts are perhaps too convoluted for a sound-bite culture to make much sense of, and I’m conscious too my outlook, though sincere, may be no more than a mushy blend of pop-philosophy sweetened by archaic Romanticism. The importance of the work then lies only in what it teaches me, and I’m coming to the conclusion what it’s teaching me is how to recognise those useless egotistical compulsions and to rise above words, that the forms of thought we pursue so doggedly throughout our lives, are just shadows of something we will never grasp. It’s not a question of lacking intellect, more that the brain is altogether the wrong shape to accommodate what it is we crave.

You don’t need to write to reach the same conclusion. You just need to live your life as it was given to you, and develop a mindful approach to it. I’m not talking about that self-help-how-to-be-a-winner-in-life kind of mindfulness either. It’s more simply an awareness of our selves in life, and the way we react to situations, and how we can tell if those reactions are the right ones or not, if they contribute to a general transcendence of this fear we have of living, or dig us more firmly into the mire of it.

It might sound as if I’m some way along the path towards nihilism, but nihilism isn’t helpful, other than as a place to bounce back from. Yes, so much of what we are capable of seeing is indeed unimportant, but the world is also rich with a transcendent beauty we are equally capable of recognising, at least in its more lavish manifestations, say in the natural world. And perhaps progress in the right direction is simply our ability to find such transcendence in smaller and smaller places. Indeed perhaps the ultimate success in life, the ultimate awesomeness, is the attainment of absolute obscurity, and the ability to sit alone, quietly, to stare closely at your thumb nail and go:


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Hartsop old wayThe source of our creative energies is a mystery. All I know for sure is it’s not a physical thing. Provided we have sufficient strength at least to draw breath, stay awake and sit down at the work desk, it’s simply a question of opening the valve inside our heads for the creative steam to come gushing out with a vigour untempered even by age and infirmity.

But we can weaken it,…

I’m weakening it now by talking about it. It builds pressure over time and we can either nurture it, then let it out in a sustained, calculated burst and achieve something significant with it – a novel say, or a painting, or an epic poem, or we can be constantly leaking it off in short squeaks until there’s nothing left and we are reduced to a state of creative barrenness.

Bear in mind, once upon a time, words like these would have had no outlet beyond the private diary. In so keeping them within the bounds of a closed personal awareness, they would not deplete the source. Indeed quite the opposite, for maintaining an intimacy with one’s self is both to respect one’s self and also the daemonic forces within us. But now our heads are stuck inside this box and we’re venting words the hyperspatial vacuum, which does nothing but empty us of our creativity.

Listen, we can either do a thing, or we can explain to an imagined audience why we’re doing it – explain it through our blogs, our tweets, our Instagrams. But in explaining it, in chattering about it, and self justifying, we lose the point, the point being the thing itself, rather than the describing of it.

I have talked a lot about Tai Chi on this blog, why I do it, only lately to realise, actually, I don’t do it any more. Meditation – ditto. I talk about it, but I don’t do it. And if I’m talking about writing, I’m not writing. So I guess what I’m thinking about at the moment, what I’m exploring tonight, is the perennial problem of self-justification, of explaining ourselves to the imaginary “other”, when what we’re really doing is comforting our own egos.

We cannot help our insecurities. It’s human nature, this feeling some of us have of being pulled away from the tit too soon, and we assume the other person wasn’t. We assume the other person has no insecurities at all, that they are not the same lost child we feel ourselves to be when we close the door at night and face our selves, alone. Well guess what? They do. The problem then is one of self assurance, of reassurance that what we are is all right, that we need not explain ourselves, nor less try to impress others with how successful, interesting, cool, sexy or even just how extra-specially normal we are. To this end we wear a mask.

Everyone born has ample reason to simply be. It’s just that we aspire to be more than we are. More than what? Well, more than anyone else, perhaps – more cool, more insightful, more intelligent,… and just well,… more! This is what the mask conveys. But if we forget the mask, forget the usual external appearances, the difference between me and you is nothing much. We both arise from the same collective milieu of unconscious potential, like periscopes, each to pierce the surface of this, a somewhat denser and less yielding reality. Our uniqueness lies only in this individual perspective, our singular view of the world.

Knowing what that view is, is one thing, sharing it with others is only useful to point. We are all of us on a personal voyage of discovery, and it’s ultimately our own vision, our own private view that is the essential thing. It is the picture postcard we gift back to the consciousness from which we arise. It’s not important then to capture every thought we’ve ever had, to write it down and self publish it – just because we can do it now, doesn’t mean we should. The importance of the moment has already been captured by the inner eye.

It’s more important then we notice when the sun is shining, important we do not feel the need to take its picture all the time. It’s beautiful, yes, but there’s a limit to the intimacy with which the essence of such beauty can be shared, because beauty is a thing with our unique perception at the centre of it. The urge to share it is the writer’s bane of course, but one should always be mindful that in sharing anything, the essence is always lost, and no matter what our skill with words, no one can ever truly know or see the world the way we do.

So go easy on the media. Take a break from the Blog now and then, don’t feel the need to post on Instagram every day, and don’t you ever go tweeting to the world what you had for breakfast.

Save a little something for yourself. And keep it safe.

Think outside the box from time to time.

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downham-phone-boxSo, I signed up for Instagram in the summer and got busy posting a pastiche of pictures of my imaginary life. As usual though I’m a bit slow in catching on to how you game the system so I get a thousand likes on my pictures. Sure,… I saw a blurry picture of a rusty nail knocked into a piece of wood, and it had twelve hundred likes. My picture of a broken watch got ten. The best I’ve done so far all year, a picture of a red telephone box in Downham village, is about fifty five.

This is not to say I’m disappointed by the response, only that I do not understand the game, how you massage the waves, tickle up the perception of a much liked life, rusty nails and all. You have to follow other people, I know. You like theirs and they like yours, but you can only take this so far. My fifty five max likes is garnered from a followship of about a hundred, which is itself garnered from my following of two hundred and fifty others. An equation governs the relationship – something to do with game theory I guess. But if you follow people, their stuff gets added to your daily feed and you have to spend a while going through actually liking their stuff, so your Gravatar pops up in their feed and piques their curiosity and hopefully inspires them to be kind enough to like you back. But at some point this becomes impractical in terms of the sheer time taken in the nurturing. I mean, I have a real life, you know? And I was always quickly bored with games especially when the rules were so arcane as this.

In short, perception of personal worth through any form of social media then: we fool ourselves. Nothing controversial there. It’s just a game. Get over it.

Of course, our nightly scrolling through this stuff is where the business model cuts in. The adverts appear, cunningly disguised as content, so before you know it you’ve liked that ad for Scarlet Johansson’s latest movie, thinking it was a pastiche artwork by a talented amateur.

I get those inspirational pieces as well. You know the kind: the teenage lifestyle gurus offering me a world as perfect as theirs, if only I’d learn from their canned quotations, taken fresh from the quote-o-mat machine.

And speaking of lifestyle gurus, Ekchart Tolle is on there too. I follow him. He puts stuff up of an inspirational nature, and truly I like it, though I suspect it’s not really Eckhart putting it up. I don’t mind this. What can I say? I like the guy. Recently, Eckhart, or someone channeling him said something like: pulling back into the “now” is often sufficient to make a difference to the adverse circumstances of your life. This won’t make sense unless you’ve read his stuff, and you’re familiar with this idea of letting go of striving and pulling back into a detached awareness of the present moment. And you know, it works, but we forget, so it’s good to be reminded.

Anyway, I thought to myself, okay, pull back into the present moment, and sure enough a lot of the bad stuff I felt was coming at me fell away. I felt re-energised because bracing yourself against adversity takes up a lot of energy. This suggests to many a paranormal effect, but I don’t see it that way. It’s more simply to do with perception. So much of what we take to be a real and imminent danger to our well being is in fact imaginary. We imagine danger and it sours our lives. Happiness is therefore not another life, more a change in the way we perceive the one we’ve already got. Hey, that’s good, I may Instagram that one later (twenty five likes?) But you heard it here first, right?

Discussion of cars in the office, two colleagues seriously questioning the purchase of older cars on account of them having no central locking button, one you can hit when travelling through a shady part of town, so the trolls don’t come and drag you off down a dark side-street and eat you. I’m perplexed by this, wondering if I inhabit a different world, one where there are no trolls, and where the shady parts of town are simply the parts of town you do not know. I’m sure my car has a central locking button, but I’ve no idea where it is, nor have I ever felt the need for one.

Perception of  danger therefore: How easily we frighten ourselves, and mistake the unknown for something sinister and threatening!

But jumping back to Tolle’s “now” there’s also a misconception about what it means. There must be zillions images on Instagram, and all of them the valued nows of Instagrammers. I see a cross section of the nows of people I follow. Look again in an hour and those nows have sunk, no longer fresh, buried under new nows, new images. It is a dizzying dynamic and it reminds us of the fleeting nature of existence. But these former nows are not lost, just forgotten. The machine soaks them up and my mind boggles at the terrabytes that must be devoted to the storage of this stuff no one ever looks at. What use such an accumulation? What use the mediocre picture of sunset over suburban Manchester a week last Tuesday? And that rusty nail? Are there algorithms that can interpret them, profile us and target advertising in response?

Misperception of the “now”: it is not something to be preserved or captured. We observe, we let it go.

I was stuck on the motorway for an hour last night, a pitch dark, misty night, and a string of red tail lights leading off into the distance – ten miles of it. There was a temptation to eye up the angles, the light, the geometry, to squeeze off a few shots for Instagram and say: hey look here’s me stuck in traffic; what a drag!

Sack that. An hour’s a long time in a traffic jam, sure, but our perception of it is improved if we can observe the present moment without judgement or agenda – like: I really need to be somewhere else right now. The lights, the contrasts, the sounds, the scents – there was an aliveness and vibrancy to the experience when viewed with a relaxed detachment, but even attempting to share it as I’m doing now dilutes it, because before we can describe a thing we must gain a perspective that’s remote from it. And then we do not live it. It becomes like a butterfly pinned in a display case – a dead thing. They are dead moments then, these Instagram snaps, these terabytes of server storage nothing more than a mausoleum of dead things.

It’s just a game.

Misperception of reality, and craving. They render us vulnerable to control, to suggestion by people who understand these things better than we do. I’m thinking of charismatic politicians, and other sellers of stuff. We are most of us asleep, but every moment offers an opportunity to awaken. The perception is one of a bumpy ride, that we’d better hold on as the going gets tough. Awakening is having the courage to let go. To switch off life’s record button, and simply observe without a thought for how one can game the system.

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mariaWe spend on average around eight hours a day staring at a screen. We are also moving our lives online. Much of the paperwork essential to identity and legal responsibility – certificates, documents and such – are no longer printed and posted out to us, but digitised, stored in “the cloud” and accessed through our computers.The same goes for entertainment: photographs, music, video, books, games,.. they are all losing their physical nature, becoming digital and accessed through a device.

On the one hand this is very convenient, but I wonder if I am alone in finding it also slightly disturbing. Is the “place” I actually I live becoming irrelevant. I can be removed to the other side of the world tomorrow, yet pick up the online elements of my life without missing a beat. But what kind of life is that, exactly? And what if I were to lose access to this information? Clearly I would still be alive, but it would be as if I had not existed before – no records, documents, pictures, words, music,… nothing to show for my life.

What is it then in life that defines us?

In the haste to digitise, it feels like we’re shovelling the earth out from under our feet, feeding the machine with everything we deem necessary to our being, indeed to civilisation itself – our memories, our laws, our art, our possessions. We do this because it is efficient, but at the same time it minimises our concept of home to the point where it risks disappearing altogether. Is this what we really want?

The elimination of the home would suit the machine-based global corporate intelligence. After all, businesses no longer deem it necessary to advertise their actual physical location. Corporate location is a flexible concept – here today, there tomorrow, depending on the market, on whatever is most efficient. This is made all the easier since these corporations no longer make anything. Employees too must therefore step onto this conveyor of placeless, facelessness. We interview for a job in Manchester UK, end up working out of an office in New York, but much of the time we are in the air between any city you care to mention, anywhere in the world. And the higher we climb within this corporate intelligence, the more placeless, faceless, and the more homeless we must become.

In the globalised world of work, it doesn’t matter your home for most of your life is an aeroplane seat and a plastic hotel room. It doesn’t matter your world is contained behind a single anonymous window in a glass and concrete edifice that is both anywhere and nowhere at the same time, because your true window on your world, the only world that’s beginning to matter is your laptop, your handheld, your ubiquitous touchscreen interface. We are increasingly viewing our world from within the machine, not because the machine serves us, but because we have fallen inside of it.

Yet when I look through all those Instagram and Flickr streams, the imagery speaks of a love of place, a love of the world beyond the screen. I see sunsets, lakes, trees, mountains, cities too – even the grungy bits – also a love of home, of private places, private spaces, places with a physical location that’s familiar and means something. I see coffee cups on tables, fruit in a basket, pets, loved ones, and all the things we own and take pleasure in – our cars, bikes, clothes, our fancy wristwatches, an old valve radio that sits in defiance of the times, a guitar, a battered but exquisitely comfy armchair. How much of this, I wonder, is a lament for what we are in danger of losing?

Religious teachings tell us material things do not matter, that in fact it’s spiritually limiting to identify one’s sense of self with stuff. So the machine might argue it is doing us good, rendering such symbols of identity obsolete, stripping them from us, leaving us nothing tangible of ourselves but our skins. But it’s also through stuff we exercise our sensual enjoyment of the world.

The coffee tastes good, the leather of the watch strap smells exquisite, as does the jasmine and the autumn leaves. The sunset over the ocean stills us with its palpable silence. The sound of the leaves on the trees in the breeze, the feel of the wind in our faces,… we cannot digitise these things. Is what I see online a nostalgic lament for a world that is slowly slipping through our fingers?

The machine is unashamedly and woodenly Victorian in outlook and function. As such it is like all the machines that have gone before it – amoral and unconscious. Get too close to such a thing and it will tear your arm off, because it’s not smart enough to know you’re there at all. Its function is profit through the algorithms of increased sales and internal efficiency. And to the machine the most efficient solution for the human beings who serve it is for us to exist in a form of semi-suspended animation, in rented, minimalistic, cell-like rooms that cater for the basic bodily functions, while allowing us to perform those few tasks remaining to biological entities via whatever interface the machine comes up with. And when we fall on the wrong side of the efficiency equation, we find ourselves erased, our access denied.

We think our memories, our increasingly digitised lives are becoming safer, more secure, that the online world, the machine, even provides us with a kind of immortality, that those precious old family photographs are safer scanned and held online than kept in a dusty old shoebox, vulnerable to fire and flood. My blog, my Instagram feed will outlive me, yes, but now I’m wondering if their function will only be to serve as a last cry, the lament of an inmate locked inside a machine. For a long time I have seen my future bound up with this thing. Now I am wondering if I should find ways of escaping. Were it not for the voice it grants my creative urges, I would run screaming. Or is it that we find more the secret to what it means to be alive by reflecting on the machine which is essentially dead.

We must remember we are only permitted this storage for our online personal belongings in exchange for permission for the corporate computers to scan and plunder it in order to profile, locate, and target us for advertising. It’s a crude exchange and, like anything else in business and technology, liable to a step change when something new comes along. When the clever, faceless, homeless corporate brains work out a way for product adverts to be subliminally and legally transmitted directly into our heads, then all the computers holding all our lives, so meticulously recorded by ourselves, will be deemed inefficient – at which point, unless we pay for their upkeep, they will be deleted. And when we die, and the direct debit bounces back,… yes,… deleted.

So when you are posting pictures of the things and of the places you love, when you are writing about your life to your imaginary reader, do not mistake the picture or the writing for the life you lead. It’s obvious really, the online life lacks the sensuality that makes us human. So beware this digitisation of the world. Question it. And in the mean time make your homes with impunity, fill them with your idiosyncratic nick-nackery, smell the coffee, stroke your pets, make love, go out and watch the sun setting,… be what your are. Be sensual.

And remember,…

We are not the machine.

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vinegarSocial media can enhance human interaction, it can inform, connect, communicate to a degree previously unimaginable. It can also amplify the most shallow depths and allude to meaning where there is none. It can delude and degrade the experience of life, so we must always ask ourselves the question: what is a thing for? What good is it? What harm can it do?

Our real lives are incidental to our dreams. My dreams are a vignette of my aspirations; my romantic inclinations and my work as a writer. My real life, beyond the vignette, is more the realm of cold water, hairy bath-plugs, washing up, and shirts that need ironing.

But isolated counter-images are highly emotive. They interrupt the mundane, they resonate, hold back the blink reflex for a moment while we freeze-frame and take note – a pattern, a combination of colours, or contrast, a shape,… these things are mysterious. We want to capture them, to preserve them in a jar and Instagram is that jar.

But given the means of recording those freeze frames, of presenting them, this does not prevent us from dishonesty by omission. We self edit, and thereby create an idealised life stream in order to impress the imaginary “other” with how cool, how stylish that life is, entirely void of the mundane. It is a fiction.

Today, I’ve spent the day in Freudian mode, analysing the dream sequences of others on Instagram and have discovered human frailty and human insecurity as evidenced by the force of its denial, by its over-compensatory claims to the contrary. I am in good company then. But there is also beauty here, beauty in the visual fictions we create.

Sitting in a cafe at the weekend my eye was drawn to the colours and shapes of a vinegar bottle, some sachets of sugar, a salt and pepper pot. Ignore the surroundings – the smeared egg on the plate, the spilled coffee grains, the squished potato on the tile floor – these things are not attractive, so we exclude them. We draw a frame around them, as around our lives, simplify the shapes, play with the composition, look for the golden ratios,.. out comes the Droid and,… snap.

Instagram provides a platform for such vignettes, also a set of filters and basic manipulation tools that seem designed to accentuate the romanticism of an image, but which real life has a way of filtering out. I don’t know by what magic this is achieved. I have spent many a fruitless hour on Paintshop trying to sprinkle this same effect over my photography, while Instagram achieves it with a few buttons and sliders.

But as with all social media there is the danger of valuing one’s life by the number of likes or followers – translate as “audience”. This is my life, as evidenced by this bottle of vinegar, and it must be worth it because I have a massive audience, thus my every freeze-frame is capable of reaching and influencing the lives of many others. We aspire to become actors in our own soap opera, our own willing Truman, gullible sacrifices to a global audience of voyeurs.  We must be vigilant then, and remember life is not art, that the person is not the portrait, or we risk tumbling into the delusional void of crass superficiality.

We all know life is lived entirely out of shot, yet subliminal feeds like Instagrams are interesting, especially when we focus on the whole, rather than upon its parts. Instagram is about the blink of the eye, it is about those moments when we have not brought our camera with us, when all we have is our ‘phone. And with it there is the potential to capture the most intimate, the most fleeting of moments, to collect them, to create a visual journal of our life’s journey. In the early days ‘phones came with poor cameras, but this is no longer the case.

So, I’ve spent the day with Instagram, populating a tentative mosaic of image-ined life. Shapes, colours, emotions, mystery, joy, longing, passion. The images in my stream do mean something to me, they do attempt to convey something, an aspiration perhaps to vignette the bits of life I value, but mostly I think to try to convey the beauty I find in the ordinary. Yes, an emotive sunset over sea or mountains will stir the heart, and most I think would agree such a thing is beautiful, but we can find beauty in the simple things too, in the every day.

Actually I’m no longer sure about that vinegar bottle. I think it looks ridiculous actually – whatever was I thinking? I may just edit that out, tidy up the romanticised notion of my life. Instagram is very good at that.

Of course it’s also good at shoving in your face the life-streams of today’s chosen celebrities, and one must therefore ask the question by means of what algorithm does Ronaldo out trump Zendaya, and who the hell are these people anyway, and how far would I have to scroll down to find the equally fictitious life-stream of Michael Graeme?

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