The Apocalypse Doesn’t Need an Instagram Filter

Two metaphors abounded: the aforementioned Blade Runner and the skies of Mars. If this is what Mars is like, even Elon Musk might be reconsidering his travel plans.

On the other hand, Mars is probably Covid-free.

But the bigger metaphor these pictures evoked was that of a nuclear stress bomb. Ongoing sprawling crises are, quite literally, making us mentally ill. Finally, we can see it. For the past few months, we have been terrified of a virus we cannot photograph. And then there’s the strange weather—fire tornados, hot domes, derechos, inversions, and monster hurricanes moving towards landfall in an oceanic conga line. Recently much of California has been socked by a historic and horrific heat wave.

High temperatures and browned-out air conditioners don’t go viral on Instagram. But when wildfires turned the sky orange, those living underneath could share the scary glory with friends and gawkers on social media. Welcome to my hell. What’s more, we know that this phenomenon is not just a stray aberration, but a harbinger of more horrors to come, because our failure to address climate change has routine-ized extreme weather and ushered in an era where some conditions are literally off the chart. So, for one day, pressing the virtual shutter on a phone camera sans filter provided not just a glimpse of our future, but a shareable porthole where we could gaze upon impending dystopia at our leisure.

Yes, even on that day there were those who insisted on continuing their usual envy-gramming. They posted pictures of New England country houses, Atlantic beaches, or five-star hotels. Some even had the temerity to display diamond-blue skies in their Instas, tweets, and Facebook posts. Those postcard images seemed horribly tone-deaf. Wednesday belonged to a present danger that was especially horrifying because we know that it’s our future. On the day the sky turned orange, fear of missing out—FOMO—had become, simply, fear.

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Time Travel

In a 2017 interview for my book, Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom explained to me why filters were so integral to his app’s success:

I studied abroad in Florence my junior year of college, and I took photography. My professor took away my nice, fancy, 35-millimeter film camera at the time, and he said use this. It was an old Holga camera, built basically for the Chinese population in the seventies. It didn’t take off there. But it took off inside the United States as an alt photo movement. He said, “I really want you to get used to taking kind of fuzzy photos through the plastic lens of the Holga camera.” I fell in love with it. And then he said, “If you really want to get fancy and play with photography, you can dye your prints with toner.” We had to compensate for that not-so-nice camera by taking a uniquely shaped photo and applying unique colorations to it and making an art statement out of it rather than trying to keep it as its own thing, which is trying to represent reality. And so when I worked on Instagram, that’s where the filter side came from. Because if you try to represent reality, everyone’s like, “That photo that you just took on your cell phone looks like a cell phone photo,” right? But when you present it as something else people go, “Oh! That unlocks a bunch of sharing. Great, now I can express myself, now I can actually feel comfortable sharing this.”