(Image) editorial question
The epistemology of Photoshop
One of the keys to any philosophy is being able to determine what is true and what is not. Which of my senses can I trust? It helps, when trying to decide whether — and how — to respond to things, to know whether or not these things actually exist. That is, we respond differently to things that we can observe directly, like our hairline, than we do to things we cannot observe directly, such as spiritual entities.

This also affects the issues we choose to mark as significant or substantial in some way. Many people believe, for instance, that anthropogenic global warming is a literally construed "thing," that it exists, and that it is problematic. On a day to day basis, however, I would venture to say that people spend more time thinking about smaller — but more directly observable — things, like their dry cleaning or how much they like their coworkers — than about a warming planet. Call it a hunch.

This isn't about AGW, though, or coworkers. It's about trying to come up with what amounts to a digital epistemology. That is, in an era where information production far outstrips our ability to consume it, and we can no longer live in a bubble confined to our personally-observable universe, we already have to be making decisions about what should go into any decision-making heuristics. But what information can we trust?

Photo manipulation has been around, in all probability, for as long as there have been photographs. Soviet-era censorship was known for it, and for the propensity of people in the Soviet Union to inexplicably disappear from state media. I've mentioned before how, in the west, Reuters has been caught touching up their pictures, and of course there was the flap about Time's OJ Simpson mugshot. And we all know that celebrities and models are fake, airbrushed beyond any semblance of humanity.

Photoshop Disasters is a blog tracking the failures of people to execute Photoshop correctly. What's incredible — if slightly troublesome, for any one who likes believing their eyes — is just how much is photoshopped. It's not just models; it's cars, it's product placement, it's showing the images on an electronic device. It's adding in diversity to a brochure by pasting in a black man, adding in support to a campaign rally by cloning a few more people in the crowd, and adding in some clarity to a confrontation by moving bits around.

Here's the thing, though: these are the bad fakes. These are the ones we can catch because they're obvious — like how it was blatantly obvious that Reuters had cooked their pictures. Anyone could see it. I could see it. Presumably, an expert could catch most, or all, of the edits that are invisible to the untrained eye. Maybe. Hopefully.

As it stands — and I know this is a revelation coming several years too late — I'm simply blown away by the complete and utter saturation of Photoshop today. It's the autotune of the photographic world. The pictures we see in magazines, advertisements, and even news stories have ceased to be literally accurate portrayals. Instead they are photorealistic renderings and interpretations of abstract concepts. When I wasn't looking — again, admitting that I'm late to the party — taking pictures went gonzo. Conveying a concept subrogates factual depiction.

How do we respond to this? I suppose I see two ends to this continuum.

At one end, we simply discount photographs as informing our worldview when making rational decisions, in the same way as we discard anecdotes as being insufficient (well, or should — we don't, of course), but continue to profess a belief in an objectively-understandable world.

At the other, we reject even that latter proposition. In a hyperrealistic world where we may lack the ability to critically analyse whether or not we can trust the images we see, what value do the tokens represented by that image hold — particularly when so many of those images aren't to be trusted?

Presumably not this later, for it's a dishearteningly nihilistic view of the situation. On the other hand, the former would seem to foster a pronounced — even counterproductive scepticism. Already, we find people who doubt the scale or scope of human tragedy on the grounds of being unable to trust the representative images. But then, what's the answer?
Vox
10.03.2010 - 9h48
Comrade Alex
10.03.2010 - 10h14
Vulpecula
10.03.2010 - 1h47
Comrade Alex
10.03.2010 - 1h54
Vulpecula
11.03.2010 - 2h23

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