Having recently posted about this book, quite by coincidence an article has just appeared on the LensCulture website about the role of Artificial Intelligence in photography.
The article, by Alexander Strecker, is a review of an exhibition in New York by Trevor Paglen that features photos taken, or created, by machines. These are pictures taken by and effectively for, to be read by, machines. Except to the extent that it is humans who write the software and feed these machines the data sets from which they work, these images are taken without human intervention of agency. As such they are a somewhat chilling vindication of Flusser’s argument. When you think about it there are increasing numbers of ways in which photos are taken by machines alone: for example, and perhaps most troubling, by drones, particularly those used by the military to identify and strike distant targets; face and vehicle number plate recognition systems; security camera systems.
What is most worrying, bearing in mind Flusser’s argument, and is borne out to an extent by this exhibition, is that although these AI systems are programmed by humans they are programmed in ways that reflect the interests and prejudices of the humans involved, and most particularly the organisations that employ them so that the resulting images are not objective but meet the requirements and serve the interests of those organisations.
It used to be that the demon at the heart of capitalism was the military-industrial complex. Then it was (and to an extent still is) big pharma as well. Is it now the tech giants?
It was also just the other day that I came upon something on the OCA Discuss forum about an algorithm that purportedly assesses the aesthetic quality of a photograph. This seems to me to be part and parcel of the same move towards robotisation and automation of photography, for the purposes of and in the interests of those that create the algorithm in just the same way as the AI in the exhibition.
As the article itself recognises, all of this opens up serious questions, and the need for an urgent and informed debate about the role of photography in the developing digital environment. Personally I have no idea what the answers to those questions might be though I can now see that it is not simply going to be a simple matter, as I thought in my previous post, of just striving to produce work that is new and previously unseen as suggested by Flusser. I can also see more clearly now that there is a major dilemma for any photographer who uses the digital realm in any way.
It is happening right now, right here with this blog, and I am a part of it. This blog is an educational tool recording my development and progress through an academic course. It is though putting out into the wider digital world images that I have made that would not otherwise be seen by anyone other than me and my tutor and assessors. They are open to anyone who cares to look. How the people who have found my work without being directed to it by me is beyond me. Recently someone from a discipline completely divorced from photography looked at one of my posts. Of course I do not mind, why should I? But how? Why? My best guess at the moment, though I have not looked hard enough to find out, is that it is possible to get the system in some way to look out for certain key words or phrases and to send an alert and link whenever they are found.
Once something goes into the digital realm your personal control over it is compromised if not lost. I would expect that mostly this is not a problem, that it is a relatively benign state of affairs. However, we already know from looking at the issue of context that once an image is in the public domain it can, at the very worst, be used, interpreted, and manipulated in ways that can be completely alien and counter to the intentions of the originator.
The digital realm is though where, almost inevitably, as photographers we have to operate. That is where and how those seeking to make a living from their art have to work. I note that Magnum have an article on their website titled “How can photographers harness the digital space?”. It is an important environment and not one that can be ignored or avoided.
Yes it could be possible to, as it were, go off grid but then how would you disseminate your work? Given that the digital realm is now so pervasive would it actually be possible really to remain disconnected or aloof from it?
I honestly do not know. For now all I can do is try to hold good to Flusser’s injunction and make the best work that I can. Oh, and avoid spaces such as Instagram which seems to me to be home to so much of all that is banal and worthless in the taking of pictures today. Yes, there is some good stuff in there and I can see that it can be a useful tool for some creating good work. But I do fear it is drowned out by the dross.
Lastly, for anyone out there who does come across this, excuse me if it sounds like a bit of a rant. I do not mean to be doctrinaire or puritanical about this. This is a serious and deeply important topic, not just within the realms of photography, but for society as a whole, and this is just a first attempt on my part to start straightening out my thinking. My thinking is clearly rather inchoate at the moment but I feel I have to start somewhere.