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Dominance of the Image

Recently, when I was watching the German Internet tv programme, I found this video. For those of you who read this and don't have broadband, I will give you a short description of what video is about. )If you can, please watch the video. It is way more impressive than my lousy description:

An image editing software is introduced that allows you to remove people from a given picture without the pains you have to take using well known programmes such as Photoshop or Fireworks. Furthermore you can change landscapes, say, you have taken a snapshot of a bay and going through your holiday pictures you find that the thing does not look as impressive as you had it in mind. Now with the application shown in the film you can extend the middle part of the image (water, horizon—everything) and make the bay as broad as you want without the effect that anything looks squeezed. Sounds like a nice tool, doesn't it?

Spending a second thought on the matter some philosophical and ethical questions arise. When Baudrillard stated that in our (western late-capitalistic) society the image has a dominance over reality, that the image is more desirable than the “real thing”, some people thought that it is only pseudo-philosophy stating the obvious, overdoing it a bit and inventing oneself as a prophet of doom.

That the cover of glossy papers have been retouched for a while now is only obvious. Our role models in terms of beauty have been manipulated on a computer screen for a while now. This does not only mean removal of a red eye-effect and covering a few spots. We are talking about longer legs, removal of cellulitis, bigger eyes, fuller lips, et cetera.

With the software shown in the video our society goes a step further. The subjectivity of a given impression is reproduced digitally. The average user can now manipulate his or her holiday snapshots as easily as his or her memory. You broke up with your girlfriend right after the summer? No problem, just erase her from the pictures as well as from your mind! One could say in reply to this scenario that this was possible with other software as well, and, yes, Photoshop and even Paint was a first step in that direction but this tool is a whole new quality. Add these ideas to Second Life ( you have the absolute dominance of the image. In Switzerland a part of the virtual reality is being rebuild in First Life (see:, a first indication what is desirable and how things are going to develop.

When Ferdinand de Saussure ( that the relationship between signifier and signified is an arbitrary one, people just thought that he was nuts. When Sapir and Whorf ( said that it is not our perception that build our vocabulary but our vocabulary that builds our perception, the linguistic community thought they lost it a bit there. When Baudrillard ( told people in the 1970s and 1980s that the image is going to be more interesting than reality people believed that this was all horse shit.

Now we have a Second Life in which we can put easily retouched snapshots of our holidays on the virtual wall of our virtual living room. There is no more signified in this sphere. The signifier only refers to a very vague concept that is fluid at best, but realistically gasiform. The disappearance of the signified leads to a never ending circle of verbal and visual representation. Talk about what we see and we model what we see after what think. If you push your holiday sweetheart out of your memory banks and out of your holiday pictures, was she ever there? The border between schizophrenic and standard perception becomes somewhat more blurry.

But what are the consequences of these developments. Quite frankly, our humanities momentarily lack the apparatus to describe the mentioned developments. Isn't that strange? A few years ago the theories described above seemed to be more than appropriate in order to express ideas about human behaviour. Since it is unlikely that audio-, video-, and image editing software is going to take a step backwards, the humanities must hurry up to develop modes of descriptions and categories that allow man to comprehend what he is doing in his very own world of “0s” and “1”.

Otherwise we are going to get stuck in a virtual "Catch-22" spiral towards an uncertain reality without rules, ethics, and without identity.
2008-04-07 10:21:30