Invisible Images (Your Pictures Are Looking at You)

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this is one of the most prescient articles dealing with how digital technologies –really artificial intelligence– is the most consuming body of visual data in existence: thinking well beyond the now ancient 35 mm film pictures of the baby and the spouse… PTL

IN the New Inquiry, By TREVOR PAGLEN

Excerpt:

“I.

OUR eyes are fleshy things, and for most of human history our visual culture has also been made of fleshy things. The history of images is a history of pigments and dyes, oils, acrylics, silver nitrate and gelatin–materials that one could use to paint a cave, a church, or a canvas. One could use them to make a photograph, or to print pictures on the pages of a magazine. The advent of screen-based media in the latter half of the 20th century wasn’t so different: cathode ray tubes and liquid crystal displays emitted light at frequencies our eyes perceive as color, and densities we perceive as shape.

We’ve gotten pretty good at understanding the vagaries of human vision; the serpentine ways in which images infiltrate and influence culture, their tenuous relationships to everyday life and truth, the means by which they’re harnessed to serve–and resist–power. The theoretical concepts we use to analyze classical visual culture are robust: representation, meaning, spectacle, semiosis, mimesis, and all the rest. For centuries these concepts have helped us to navigate the workings of classical visual culture.

But over the last decade or so, something dramatic has happened. Visual culture has changed form. It has become detached from human eyes and has largely become invisible. Human visual culture has become a special case of vision, an exception to the rule. The overwhelming majority of images are now made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop. The advent of machine-to-machine seeing has been barely noticed at large, and poorly understood by those of us who’ve begun to notice the tectonic shift invisibly taking place before our very eyes.

The landscape of invisible images and machine vision is becoming evermore active. Its continued expansion is starting to have profound effects on human life, eclipsing even the rise of mass culture in the mid 20th century. Images have begun to intervene in everyday life, their functions changing from representation and mediation, to activations, operations, and enforcement. Invisible images are actively watching us, poking and prodding, guiding our movements, inflicting pain and inducing pleasure. But all of this is hard to see.

Cultural theorists have long suspected there was something different about digital images than the visual media of yesteryear, but have had trouble putting their finger on it. In the 1990s, for example, there was much to do about the fact that digital images lack an “original.” More recently, the proliferation of images on social media and its implications for inter-subjectivity has been a topic of much discussion among cultural theorists and critics. But these concerns still fail to articulate exactly what’s at stake.

One problem is that these concerns still assume that humans are looking at images, and that the relationship between human viewers and images is the most important moment to analyze–but it’s exactly this assumption of a human subject that I want to question.

What’s truly revolutionary about the advent of digital images is the fact that they are fundamentally machine-readable: they can only be seen by humans in special circumstances and for short periods of time. A photograph shot on a phone creates a machine-readable file that does not reflect light in such a way as to be perceptible to a human eye. A secondary application, like a software-based photo viewer paired with a liquid crystal display and backlight may create something that a human can look at, but the image only appears to human eyes temporarily before reverting back to its immaterial machine form when the phone is put away or the display is turned off. However, the image doesn’t need to be turned into human-readable form in order for a machine to do something with it. This is fundamentally different than a roll of undeveloped film. Although film, too, must be coaxed by a chemical process into a form visible by human eyes, the undeveloped film negative isn’t readable by a human or machine.

The fact that digital images are fundamentally machine-readable regardless of a human subject has enormous implications. It allows for the automation of vision on an enormous scale and, along with it, the exercise of power on dramatically larger and smaller scales than have ever been possible.

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