Pictures of It Didn’t Happen

Twitter and smartphones have changed the art of citation on the Internet. It’s not enough to quote something and to link. A picture must also be included of the source with the quoted text highlighted. (Then the link and attribution are forgotten.) Perhaps this practice arose because the sources are easily deleted or altered. But everything digital is malleable. Pictures can be fabricated.

This is not a tweet by Donald J. Trump.

The question arises, what can we trust? Photographs, of the non-digital variety, have been the subject of manipulation since the invention of the medium, whether for monetary fraud, such as spirit photography, or for political, like the memory hole. Some news organizations, such as the Associated Press, adopted strict usage practices around photo manipulation to ensure trustworthiness. Other publications are less concerned about objectivity in the pursuit of their art. We made the distinction: is this a representational work with a claim to objectivity? Or is it art, potentially with a claim to so-called truth? What helps guide us now?

TED Radio Hour talked the other day about our understanding of memory and new techniques for altering it. We’ve known our experience is plastic for some time: lawyers lead the witness. But these medical techniques of memory alteration are the premise of Philip K. Dick‘s 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” frequently remembered as the motion picture Total Recall (1990), and pose a quandary: Should we? What is real if we can remember a fictitious vacation on Mars? No wonder some people think Apollo 11 landed in Arizona.

Funny how the Big Questions of Life have indefinite answers, if any. What is Real? What is Illusion? What is True? The same questions troubling us long ago bother us today. Is there anything there outside of our senses? Our sight grows old and dim. Our memory lies. We forget. Perhaps the Ancient Greek word for truth is intentionally precise: not forgotten.

What’s to be believed? Our dementiaThe treachery of images?

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