The old philosophical conundrum asks, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Perhaps the modern analog should be stated this way, “If a person snaps a photo and doesn't post it to the ‘net with a hashtag, does the photo exist?”
We live in strange times.
Hundreds of millions of people spend extraordinary energies every day to leave well-defined digital breadcrumbs back to themselves. A subset of this group – – many millions, I believe – – don't just leave breadcrumbs. They leave billboards. Vast numbers of us now spend huge chunks of time and energy trying to project carefully groomed personas to the rest of the world. Don't snicker: you know you do this, too! Whether you're working hard to project a polished professional persona to attract potential employers, or working hard to strike just the perfect note of cool snarkiness to attract a certain social crowd, what goes out into cyberspace is not necessarily the view from the ground. In a Venn diagram of creators versus consumers, the two circles practically overlap. Digital creators are digital consumers almost by default, and there are enormous challenges facing both parts of the image.
One of the most beguiling aspects of dealing with so much information concerns questions of authenticity, of reality. It's rare to see people post unhappy moments from their lives on Facebook. It's even more rare to see people post ordinary parts of their lives that they might prefer the rest of the world not experience, like when they accidentally splash tomato sauce on their shirt. Where rare sadness and tragedy sometimes get spotlighted, ordinary imperfections never appear.
This all leads to an interesting, emerging Web trend. What started as a moment of braggadocio in the photographic world has begun to spread into the mainstream, described not only photographs but now also in video and even textual pieces of varying lengths. Naturally it’s got a hashtag of it’s own: #nofilter.
The irony here delights as much as it dismays. The representational metaphor of the expression sets poetic minds alight. The tittering Twitterati may laugh at the inevitable double entendre: we can only wish that people filtered themselves more! But the tag is actually describing something else, something separate from unexpurgated opinion on the part of those who post. The tag is meant to declare that the photograph, say, has not been post--processed with some sort of electronic widget to manipulate how the image looks beyond its original capture on the camera’s sensor. The tag tries to declare with a straight face that the creator of the work has not been influenced by external forces, that whatever it is he or she has chosen to share is, in fact, a view of reality. It is “unfiltered”.
The question here is whether we should grimace more at the person putting up the post or the person who consumes that that post and believes the “no filter” tag somehow places it above the bounds of certain critique. Does anybody really believe there’s such a thing as "no filter”? The moment we observe anything, especially through some sort of technological device, we’re automatically filtering. The moment we raise a camera to our eye we’re selecting what we want to crop out of the world for the purpose of presentation. The device itself is a filter. A photographer uses it to select from all of the many other choices available and eliminate the rest of the world. With a camera a photographer (that’s YOU, holding your iPhone) selects out that which he or she doesn't want to show. Painting isn’t the same; it adds elements to a void. Cameras automatically filter the world.
The fascinating part isn’t really about the desire to see images that are allegedly free of contamination. The fascinating part is the apparently strong desire to assert that the image being presented is devoid of digital trickery. It's as if the tag itself is an admission of wide-scale cultural distrust. The tag is a capitulation to the bankruptcy of honest exchange among people. By placing that tag in front of something that pretends to be presented as factual – – a photograph! – – content creators are consciously trying to assert that certain images are more truthful than others, and that to look at this one or that one we should not presume deception.
Of course, that means the default position is the a priori assumption that we are always being deceived in some way, that we should not believe anything unless we can be convinced of it’s veracity by the person who created it. Have you ever looked at an ad for a used car and wondered if the deal is as good as it says it is?
What’s the take-home here? If we’re choosing to communicate, we must be honest. Urban planning? You must be honest about how the traffic patterns are likely to change. Health care policy? Must be honest about who will be served and who will not. Loan officer? Must be honest about how rates are likely to change over time. We may all debate the accuracy of the claims being made (no doubt there’s plenty of debate these days), but if you’re the one making the claim, you cannot enter into the exchange intending to deceive.
Photographer? It’s okay if you manipulate your image, but you must be honest about it. That doesn’t mean you have to explain what you did to the light captured by your sensor and why, but it does mean that you cannot claim it’s something it isn’t. You most certainly don’t have to declare how you manipulated it in photoshop, but you must cop to it if you’re asked. I don’t expect my car dealer to explain every last detail behind their promise for a long lasting transmission on a new car, but I do expect (or at least hope) that they’ll be honest about their promise to uphold their pledge, and able to explain if pursued.
The truth is that we all filter, all the time. There’s too much information to experience everything without various synthetic decision trees to select "this not that". This goes back to the earliest information exchanges. Ancient people out on hunt recounted only the good parts when they got back to the evening campfire. They filtered. But the civilizations that endured and thrived did so because they counted on certain fundamental, truthful aspects of those stories. The stories were embellished by good storytelling, of course, but they were essentially true. They had to be. If they weren’t true, the tribe would not have been able to trust where to go when the food ran low and it was time for a new hunt.
Truth, in its many forms, therefore becomes a cultural obligation, and that obligation must be demonstrated and nurtured first and foremost by the most creative people in the group.
That’s you, isn’t it?