Friday, August 29, 2003

How Digital Is Bringing Back Ephemerality

So because digital media can reproduce perfectly, in some sense it is fighting the idea of the value of ephemerality. But in a more important way, it's bringing it back.

As has been often noted, especially in law enforcement and journalism, you can't really rely on photographs anymore. PhotoShop and its related products have made it possible for any person to manipulate a photograph in such a way that it shows something that didn't really happen. Every once in a while, this becomes a story when some newspaper or magazine digitally edits some image. And while experts are quite good at detecting such changes, as the software improves, it will become more difficult, and eventually, the cost and expense of analyzing an image for trickery will be high enough that it's essentially cheaper or more effective to assume it's false. A few years behind, but on the same curve, is the same phenomenon for video clips. (Funny, I almost wrote "footage," a word that has no relationship with the physical object any more.)

This sort of thing sends people into a tizzy. "We won't be able to trust film! We won't have a perfect record!" But the funny thing is that this was true for 99% of the history of the human race; only in the last hundred years or so have we had this idea that technology could serve as a perfect, impartial observer. All that digital editing has done is return us to that state, where instead of relying on the perfection of technology, we need to begin to relearn to sense the motives and honesty of the people holding the evidence; no different than any other kind of testimony or story.