Saturday, October 21, 2006

Faking it on the Web

The proliferation of internet "digital hoaxes" brings several things to mind:

First: the urban legends

These popular pictures spread as attachments that were forwarded a billion times across the web. Some of them were just obviously ridiculuous, such as the "Bert is Evil" campaign. However, there were others that seemed at least slightly plausible. They were often grotesque images with an accompanying explanation. I’m pretty sure that everyone got at least one of them: the “eye-infecting dust-worms”, “breast infection”, and “contaminated sushi” seemed to be the most famous. In the instance of the breast infection, a doctored photograph did the trick, but the other two used actual pictures. The stories describing them were invented.

I believe that our fascination with this sort of spectacle can be connected to the 18th century fascination with cabinets of curiosities. The only difference is that the ‘curiosities’ can now come to us. In the past, people would question the veracity of an exhibit simply because of what it was presented with. Now that these curiosities are coming to us via email, it seems that the onus of determining a thing’s “truthiness” depends on the viewer’s own ability to check sources, as well as their ability to be skeptical, or at least agnostic.

Second: Mechanical Objectivity

I think that our visual gullibility can be connected to a cultural acceptance of what Lorraine Datson and Peter Galison have termed “mechanical objectivity”. Basically, with the invention of the camera, people believed that they finally had a way to present reality without worrying about bias in the presentation. Now, this was back in the 19th century: since then we have also learned to be skeptical of photographs. However, we can’t forget that the idiom: “Pictures don’t lie” is based on the assumption that a camera always discloses the truth.

Third: Political manipulation of imagery

Once the public accepted the notion that “pictures don’t lie”, various groups/individuals/institutions have tried to use this belief against us for their own rhetorical ends. During the 2004 election campaign, John Kerry’s picture appeared in an image with “Hanoi Jane” Fonda at an anti-vietnam rally. Now, I do not necessarily believe that this sort of manipulation resulted in Kerry’s defeat…the man did it to himself (or rather, did not do it)…but it is clear that whoever doctored the image did it for propagandist ends.
As an historian, I tend to historicize things. In this case, doctoring photographs for propagandistic ends has been an old tactic, and does not depend on digital technology. The case of Trotsky disappearing from Lenin’s side was accomplished, after all, through analog methods.

Fourth: Coded Objectivity?

The article on Farid’s truth-seeking algorithms makes me think about our own era’s notions of objectivity. If the truth is no longer in the camera (which can be manipulated), does this mean that the truth is in the code?

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