Selfie Schtick

Steve Chisnell

20 January 2018

I can’t pretend I’m hugely impressed by one of Google’s newest apps, Arts and Culture–or at least I am cautionary about the feature which has received the most attention, the Search Art With Selfie. Sure, the entire idea is clever–but cleverness is itself not a virtue.

Basically the function uses facial recognition software to match your photo against all the faces Google has collected of art across the world and ages. It seeks your artful doppleganger. And it works, to a degree. As I write people are posting their “spitting images” of famous (or forgotten) figures of history across social media.

At least 400 million people look like Cleopatra.

With “thanks” to Google Arts and Culture

It’s definitely fun, feeding our society’s digital narcissism in yet another configuration: Allo, Meitu, Bitstrips, and a thousand others have already failed to escape our collective attention deficit.

But that’s precisely the problem, isn’t it? Google’s app has enormous reach. It highlights our civilization’s artistic accomplishments, and it catalogs and indexes our thinking by theme, era, geography, innovation, or any other variation we might imagine. It promises to bring to our fingertips some of the most profound expressions and scholarship from the last 8000 years.

We’re using it for selfies.

Our cultural politics demands we choose sides, take a stand, vote one way or another, A or B, argue pro or con, answer yes or no.

With Google, I can find the history of the Dutch East India Company’s governor portraits by Theodorus Rheen at the Rijksmuseum with the same agility as finding the nearest Tim Horton’s or Age of Empires build times. The apps are a fingerprint apart. But we know that while Farmville and Flappy Birds, Yo and Meerkat, FourSquare and DrawSomething, each have fallen into amnesia to all but the most desperate, what element of Google Arts and Culture will prevent the same fate?

Google seems to know that we are not ready for a museum trip on our phones; therefore it packages the selfie schtick as an attention-getter, an in-app insult of our own lack of culture. But by doing so, it risks placing the app in the same category as Koi Pond and Periscope: our distracted behavior is well-honed.

Parts of our past best forgotten.

It may well be said that my finding fault with the app due to our social shallowness is itself problematic. What is Google to do? If it did not have the selfie component, the entire enterprise might go the way of Google Bump, Schemer, Picasa, Moderator, or Plus. And if it does, it cheapens the very art it offers by pandering to our self-idolatry.

And this, then, is the problem with all things social. Our cultural politics demands we choose sides, take a stand, vote one way or another, A or B, argue pro or con, answer yes or no. Every topic before us is examined with this simple binary, this insistence of the simplicity of issues.

But each human innovation–like symbolism and art, texts and politics–offers a more complex ripple of effects, a series of readings for both creditors and critics alike, and the balance sheet between them is not so easily tallied.

The art of our civilization will likely survive, despite the Google app’s popularity. What we cannot predict is how free and instant access to the complete genome of human civilization–one without the signifiers of pilgrimage, sacred, cryptid, or rare–will shift our valuing of what it teaches.


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