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The Plain View
When Instagram first appeared in 2010, one factor that helped it rise in the App Store rankings—drawing the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, who purchased the company in a deal that antitrust enforcers are currently reexamining—was its innovative use of filters to make images more distinctive. It seemed so cool to capture and share a portrait or scene with sepia tones or an oversaturated color palette.
This past Wednesday, though, thousands of people posting to Instagram—as well as to other social networks and their own websites—took pains to insist that the striking images they were posting had no filters, even though the pictures looked like phantasmagoric storyboards from Blade Runner. It was the day the sky in the Bay Area turned orange. Smoke particles from uncontrolled conflagrations in California were suspended thousands of feet over San Francisco and environs like an ashen curtain, refracting blue light and allowing sickly hues of orange and red to penetrate, creating a postapocalyptic groundscape. In other words, people shared otherworldly photos straight from the camera, because dysfunctional nature had created its own filter. The most striking images were from San Francisco proper, which was bathed in a zestless citrus haze, as if some evil extraterrestrial had zapped Karl the Fog with a deadly malady. Photos shared from Peninsula locations like Menlo Park and Palo Alto showed a sky just as freaky, but on a duller side of the spectrum—more like the yellowed granite of rotting old tombstones.
The images had a decadent beauty, reminding me of Joan Didion’s description of New Orleans: “The atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.” The air in New Orleans, however, was not a scary orange, and it did not rack up AQI high scores.
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.
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.”
Ask Me One Thing
Jonathan, commenting on last week’s interview with Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs, took issue with a remark I made about how the former CEO must have been a “killer”: “In an otherwise fascinating profile, this is an odd guess to throw in about an individual you described as the exact opposite half a sentence earlier. More than that, do you think this is actually true? That to build a company, one has to be a killer? A company is made up of workers, and to build a company, people need to want to work with you. Furthering this stereotype that CEOs are ‘killers’ could feed into and justify the harmful, abusive behavior of bad CEOs.”
Thanks, Jonathan. That remark was probably a little rash, especially if taken literally. The point I wanted to make was that Jacobs, for all his amiable avuncularity, inevitably had to be a fierce competitor in the hotly contested arena where Qualcomm excelled. Hey, he won the Holy Wars of Wireless! But by no means did I intend to imply that in order to succeed, a leader has to be abusive. So I agree with you on that point. There are a lot of reasons I admired Steve Jobs, but his tendency to humiliate people was not one of them, and I think Apple would have done just as well or better if he had been more of a mensch. (I was lucky enough to see that side of him at times. Plenty of Apple employees saw that as well, and still revere him, even as they lick their wounds.)
I believe that if a boss is a psychopath, it ultimately will hurt the company—though, maddeningly, short-term results may make that person very rich before the consequences catch up. Many good employees will leave, and rivals will work extra hard to compete against that company. Nonetheless, if you were cooking up the ideal CEO, killer instinct is one of those ingredients you don’t want to leave on the spice shelf. I’d also include more than a dash of compassion, as I suspect you would, too.
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
The orange sky isn’t enough for you? How’s this—that same day, it snowed in Denver, less than 48 hours after the temperature there had hit 99 degrees. Oh, and parts of Colorado were on fire, too.