MUCH of what I feel and understand about the horror of the genocide enacted by Nazi Germany on the Jewish people at Auschwitz has come from photographs. The iconic images are renowned for conveying the shocking reality of the killing machines inside the concentration camps. We have all seen them: the mountains of shoes, spectacles and dentures belonging to the victims; the hollow-eyed and ghostly faces of the relatively few who survived and were liberated by the Russian forces who first entered Auschwitz in the Spring of 1945; the mass graves of the 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, who were murdered in the gas chambers there.

When the Holocaust photographs were first published at the end of the Second World War, people around the world struggled to absorb the horror they documented. Today, the victims’ suffering is marked and commemorated in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, which is visited by over 1.5 million people annually. It’s a profoundly sombre, haunted place.

Last week, a different kind of horror and disbelief hit the headlines when a number of recent "Auschwitz selfies" – taken by mainly British tourists – were shared. The selfies had been uploaded by the individuals themselves to social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook, along with their descriptions of the "snapshots". While many of the photographs appear to show younger people – possibly in their 20s or 30s – who may have limited knowledge about the history of Auschwitz, it is nonetheless perplexingly difficult to understand the mindless nature of these selfies. Here we see them, their eerily inane grins beaming out in front of the entrance to Auschwitz, thumbs up beneath the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gateway as if there’s something to celebrate (something, that is, apart from the stag do that is the primary reason for some of these visitors' trips). Or the woman who strikes the classic selfie pose with her leg raised in an apparent attempt to present herself in a flattering silhouette, right in front of a huge glass case inside Auschwitz museum filled with hundreds of thousands of little shoes of the children who were murdered there.

Or the close-up selfie of the couple who stand, smiling, in the middle of the railway line in front of the depot where the Nazis unloaded their terrified human freight in readiness for processing for the gas chambers. It’s as if what lies behind this apparently happy young couple amounts to nothing more than some edgy background scenery for their ego-portraits.

The comments accompanying many of these snaps are equally disturbing, ranging from the bizarre, “Absolutely worn out after walking a 1000 miles today, but totally worth it ... another one ticked off our bucket list”, to the totally crass: “Getting some culture in before the stag do tonight.”

Currently, 52 million photographs are uploaded to Instagram every day and 350 million to Facebook. It’s estimated that the average "millennial" will take around 27,000 selfies in his or her lifetime. It’s too facile to suggest that all of these people are narcissists, but there is a worrying culture evolving of creating an idealised, egocentric version of the self that can only exist in the virtual world and cannot exist in reality.

Some of the photo-shopped versions of selfies people share, with their duck lips, pert backsides, chiselled abs and digitally enhanced jawlines are not just fake, they are a denial of the self, a disconnection from the world around us where image and the total control of image and personal presentation are the only things that really matter. And for what? To get attention, assert control, or to invoke envy in the rest of the pack? It’s difficult to explain it any other way.

You could be generous and suggest that it’s harmless fun, a bit of naïve larking about and self-irony. The problem is that the whole nature of selfie culture precludes the notion of "other" and engenders a world where feelings and thoughts for others become extinct from our emotional repertoire. The only real or meaningful feelings are those that relate to oneself.

Ultimately, this leads to a lack or absence of empathy. It is empathy that defines our humanity and gives us the capacity to love, care and respect others. A world without it is not so much a world of narcissists, but more one of robots. Not the kind of brave, new world that many of us would want to live in.