November 27, 2007

Which Is Worse: An Altered Photo of Reality, Or A Photo That Alters Reality?

doctored photos.jpg

On the left is real 1989 Tiananmen Square.  On the right, a doctored photo.  300 people were shown either a real or altered photo of two different protests, and then asked to recall what happened back then.  The point of this study was to show that altering a photograph will change how the events are actually remembered (in this case, as bigger and more violent.)  It's important to emphasize that the subjects already had a memory of the events (from TV, etc)-- so this photo actually changed their pre-existing memories, and they weren't aware of it.

But, here's the thing: these subjects weren't actually at the original protests.  Their original memories also came from images-- hopefully not altered images, but certainly selected images.  Right?  The TV newspeople didn't pick the boring pictures, did they?  I get that doctored photos are bad.  But how much of our memories and knowledge of the past are largely determined not by "reality" but what, or how, we were shown it in the first place.  Obviously, a lot.  Therein lies the question: is it worse to see a doctored photo, or doctored reality?

Here's an example: search your mind for recollections about the Tiananmen "episode" in 1989.  Can you remember anything-- anything at all-- other than that guy standing in front of the tanks?  Do you remember who was protesting? Why?  The question isn't why you don't remember anything, hell, it was 20 years ago and a solar system away; the question is why you do remember that guy.  Are you better off for knowing this?  Are you smarter?  Or do you carry the false impression that you know something about which you really know nothing?  That's the Matrix-- not only do you have false memories, but you get to feel good about being a knowledgeable, aware, citizen of the world. 

NPR runs a cult this way.  It offers an eclectic mix of topics, selected on purpose to allow you to think you are getting depth. You listen to NPR, and you think you're learning, growing, becoming a Renaissance Man. You're not.  Sure, it beats CNN, but that's not a battle anyone is supposed to lose.   Its target audience is insecurely intelligent people who want desperately to be intellectual and well read but who don't actually want to read too much.  What NPR offers is sentiment; the feeling that you know something.  That's why when someone asks you a question about a topic you learned about from NPR, you inevitably answer using the same language and words NPR used.  Do you understand?  Back during the election, I'd bet people at the bar that I could tell them the reasons, using the exact same words, why they'd vote for their candidate.
This speaks to psychiatry, of course-- and politics, and economics...  when so few bother to read primary sources, instead relying on "experts" to tell us what was in the primary sources, is altered data really going to matter?  I'm not for changing reality, but when you can spin a story any way you want regardless of the truth, and no one will bother to check it, what difference do facts make?

Think about this: no one would know you altered a photo or data in a primary source article, because no one would ever actually see it.  They'd only hear about it. (Same with references.)


But wait, there's more. 

The two news articles aptly summarize the study, but why did they bother to summarize this study?  Well, the message was pretty important to journalists: "doctoring of photos is bad, you bad journalists who do it."

The best line comes at the end of the one story:

"[Doctoring photos is] potentially a form of human engineering that could be applied to us against our knowledge and against our wishes, and we ought to be vigilant about it," said UC Irvine psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who designed the study. " a society we have to figure how we can regulate this."

Regulate?  What, the use of doctored photos in the media, which is actually already regulated?  Or the doctoring of photos anywhere-- maybe a disclaimer?  An automatic Photoshop watermark that says "This photo altered reality with techniques other than staging, lighting, cropping, deletion of undesired photos of this event, the placing in proximity to or away from other photos, and does not fit in with the currently acceptable social narrative as determined by your betters?"

Sorry, I'm wrong; the best line comes at the end of the other news story about this study:

"Any media that employ digitally doctored photographs will have a stronger effect than merely influencing our opinion -- by tampering with our malleable memory, they may ultimately change the way we recall history," says lead author Dario Sacchi.

Really?  Only the ones that use doctored photos?

Really? Change the way we recall history-- the old way of being told what happened was so much better?


A man can walk away from a news story like this and feel like they understood the point.  He can then pat himself on the back if they go look up the actual study and confirm the point.

But it's not enough.  What's the context?

You say: "whaddya mean context?  It's science, it's the pursuit of truth."  Well, ok, you should go back to NPR.

Part of the problem with reading articles on line is that you don't get to see the other articles in the issue, which together tell a story. 

The study appears in Applied Cognitive Psychology.  In the same issue appears a well thought out article about how the media influence the "public narrative;"  another study called, "Photographs Can Distort Memory For The News" in which they find that a (real) photograph accompanying a news article will add memories the subject thought came from the story; and a tie-in essay that concludes, "Taken together, the papers in this special section show how the media can shape what we believe, what we know, and what we remember."

Do you see?  You have a set of facts that can be manipulated endlessly to tell any story you want.  Here, a journal issue about being wary of the awesome power of the media gets used by journalists to say watch out for Photoshop.

If it was malicious, you could punch someone, but it's not, that's the point: the authors of the news articles probably didn't even know what else was in that journal. They got partial information, and ran with it.  And, of course, by printing it they thus validate it.

It's like James Joyce said, "we can never know the truth so long as we have ears and eyes."  Actually, he didn't say that, but do you see how you paid attention?