In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He was so handsome that he attracted hundreds if not thousands of female suitors.
In one version of the myth, his anguish over the death of his twin sister caused him to gaze down at his own reflection in the river, thus viewing her likeness.
In another version of the myth, his rejection of a lover angered the gods, who cursed him with an enchantment by which he fell in love with his own reflection in the water.
Whatever the case, the myth of Narcissus has lived on through the centuries, maintained first by Rome during its expansion into Greece and cultural appropriation of Greek mythology, and later through the Renaissance and into modernity.
Caravaggio has painted an exquisite Narcissus, enslaved by his own image. One can sense the pain this position imposed: bent over, knee embedded in the muddy river bank, enduring hours of obeisance to his own reflection.
John Gibson's sculpture of Narcissus is arguably even more distressing. In this sculpture, Narcissus is depicted as a young man, reclining forward to look at his reflection. The poignancy of his innocence is perhaps what strikes me the most. Narcissus did not ask for ethereal beauty; he did not ask to be damned.
This is a recurring theme in Greek mythology and philosophy. Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first deprive of reason. Whether this deprivation is expressed as all-consuming beauty, as in the case of Paris, Helen and the Trojan War, or as the all-consuming search for glory, as in Achilles and the Trojan War, the fundamental message was that limits apply to the human quest for glory and excellence.
Breaching those limits often carried a price. Hubris is always followed by Nemesis.
But was Narcissus really consciously hubristic? Or was he an example? Pour encourager les autres?
Fast forward to the 20th Century and the term narcissism begins to be applied in psychology and medicine. Sigmund Freud's On Narcissism (1914) explored the relationship between sexual development, ego and self-regard.
Today, a narcissistic personality disorder is defined as
"... a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism." (Mayo Clinic).
This is probably a timid description of the anguish and trauma people who have survived a relationship with a narcissistic personality disorder have experienced.
Which brings me to the subject of my post today. Tate Ryan-Moseley has published a superlative article in the MIT Technology Review on the impacts of social media image filters have on adolescents, and particularly adolescent women.
For this unaware, these filters do everything from adding a playful cats ears and whiskers to a selfie, to expanding the eyes, changing skin colouration, changing body types and many more effects. There are literally thousands of them.
As Ryan-Moseley writes:
Facebook and Instagram alone claim that over 600 million people have used at least one of the AR effects associated with the company’s products: a spokesperson said that beauty filters are a “popular category” of effects but would not elaborate further. Today, according to Bloomberg, almost a fifth of Facebook’s employees—about 10,000 people— are working on AR or VR products, andMark Zuckerberg recently told The Information, “I think it really makes sense for us to invest deeply to help shape what I think is going to be the next major computing platform, this combination of augmented and virtual reality.”
Snapchat boasts its own stunning numbers. A spokesperson said that “200 million daily active users play with or view Lenses every day to transform the way they look, augment the world around them, play games, and learn about the world,” adding that more than 90% of young people in the US, France, and the UK use the company’s AR products.
Another measure of popularity might be how many filters exist. The majority of filters on Facebook’s various products are created by third-party users, and in the first year its tools were available, more than 400,000 creators released a total of over 1.2 million effects. By September 2020, more than 150 creator accounts had each passed the milestone of 1 billion views.
In a recent presentation, I wrote that in the near future, I believe that online interactions and the wider digital ecosystem will be more attractive to consumers and citizens that the real world. This can be summarised in one simple sentence:
People will prefer to live online
This is due to a number of changes in how we absorb and interact with data:
Modern 4K LED screens are already making the screen world more attractive that the real world, to the naked eye. 8K screens are already on the market.
Augmented, immersive and virtual reality are already disrupting key sectors.
Gamification and social media already cause dopamine and serotonin reactions online, resulting in short-term and long-term biochemical impacts.
At the time I wrote this, I was not aware of the full scale and magnitude of the filter effect on social media and chat. But it fully synchs with the other data points I have observed. And the acceleration impact of this is truly frightening.
Mosley quotes Claire Prescott, a researcher at the University of South Wales who has run focus groups on preteen behaviour on social media. Prescott says:
“I don’t think it’s just filtering your actual image ... It’s filtering your whole life.”
That is exactly the direction we are going in. And this is exactly why I believe the virtual world is not only disrupting the fabric of our lives, it is replacing it.
If you only read one serious article this week, make sure it is Mosley's.
9 April 2021
Tate Ryan Mosley. Beauty filters are changing the way young girls see themselves. MIT
Technology Review. 2 April 2021.