Whoever coined the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” was being economical with the truth. Pictures can say far more. In fact, you could do worse than stopping reading this sentence right now and turning to the last page of this magazine for a much better class of brain to demonstrate the point. Our esteemed contributor, the award-winning author Adam Thirlwell’s rumination on Kim Kardashian’s magnum opus Selfish (Rizzoli, 2015) is a perfect illustration of how some images can deliver more than one could ever imagine. The main issue with images is, however, that images always lie – yes, even KK’s selfies – and they do it with great ease exactly because we have evolved as a species to trust our visual sense. Which was handy when we were running on the savannah but is perhaps less useful when surfing through social media.
Ancient Assyrian and Egyptian potentates were among the earliest who discovered that you can fool a lot of people with a few pictures, and it was a tradition that continued through classical sculpture, frescoes, medieval tapestries, stained glass and illustrated books. History is said to be written by winners, but it is illustrated by those with the deepest pockets, as Rupert Murdoch, among others, keenly demonstrates. The recent UK election was further proof that words, whether spoken or written, continue to terrify the powerful, who prefer to grin inanely for photographs. I wonder how many of us read the Conservative manifesto but instead trusted the conclusion that Ed Miliband has a weird stare. Meanwhile, the gentlemen of the group formerly known as Isis (Prince fans one and all? I wouldn’t dare to speculate) have shown that image manipulation and well-produced visual spectacle are still the preferred means of communication for those with tyrannical tendencies. Odd for a bunch who proclaim that they are fighting for a holy book that begins with an exhortation to the pen.
In a time when increased image literacy has, some may argue, come at the expense of regular literacy, we can’t always tell when an image is lying, trying to sell us something or seduce us. And even if sometimes we like being seduced or sold to, we should still stop and think a little. As image manipulation, formerly the preserve of the despot and propagandist, has extended its franchise, digital technology has given us all the ability to use images to deceive, allowing us to curate our imaginary, happy, exciting, fulfilled lives on Facebook or use Instagram filters to lie about our talent and/or the weather. Indeed, I am currently addicted to improving my life by using Google’s new photo-editing app Snapseed with the enthusiasm of a man making the move from mint julep to crystal meth.
So amid all these images and screens, it was great to learn earlier this year of Mark Zuckerberg’s Damascene moment. The man who, out of the kindness of his heart, let me have a Facebook page and isn’t charging me to use Instagram, even though he paid a cool $1 billion for it, had discovered an incredible new technology. It holds the sum of human knowledge, is totally immersive, can be mobile, works without batteries, gives you sequential as well as random access to data, and is hailed as the one tool to fix human beings’ greatest challenge: self-realisation. Even God is alleged to have created one (or many or none, depending on your views). Yes, Zuckerberg had found books, and I can genuinely say, hand on heart, that I am grateful to him for introducing so many thousands of people to this potentially life-changing thing. And I’m not just saying that as a purveyor of print – I really hope the sampling proves highly addictive.
In the same spirit, this summer we bring you over 200 pages of book extracts selected with the help of an international group of highly respected literary editors, in a single volume. And should you like what you taste, you can order the full version directly from the page using your smartphone or tablet with our Fashion Scan app. Think of this issue of Tank as a taster of addictive, mind-bending stuff that you can sample by the pool, and that wil make you cool. Which is not a promise we ever thought we’d make. Happy reading. §