Matt Jones

Human Perception and The Digital Image

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I was trawling through the 20 Megabyte drive of my Classic II and I found an essay that I wrote in 1998/1999. While much of it seems slightly ‘old hat’ and other bits tend to lack clarity, I seem to remember being quite pleased with it at the time. So, I thought it was about time I apply some fresh mark-up to it and publish it here.


Our recognition of time, memory and space through the photographic image is being eroded by digital image manipulation and interactive media such as the Internet and CD-ROM. If it is true that we are experiencing the ‘death of photography’ through digital culture, then we must address how images operate within this much broader framework of knowledge and understanding.

Modern technology has enabled us to communicate and exchange information in seconds with anyone in the world at any time. This speed of data transfer, in which we can interact in ‘real-time’ seems to cause physical space to collapse; to be replaced by the virtual, an electronic simulacrum of the real which people increasingly inhabit as part of leisure and work. This notion not only applies to our experiences as we use a computer, but also as we view a print of a digitally constructed image; here we are also presented with a virtual world - one which may be a composite of many different images; deceiving our brain into believing that what we are seeing is a real event. However, in this essay, I wish to address concepts surrounding not only the digital print, but also, the image purely in terms of the computer itself (i.e. the image stored digitally and viewed on the screen). It seems that we are departing from the image as a physical chemical-based object - a treasured artifact - and increasingly viewing images on the computer screen along with other media such as video, text and audio.

Through new media technologies such as the Internet, we acquire knowledge from a limitless and multifarious resource, in which images are stored as binary code, as data transferred at the speed of light round the globe. But is this new medium forcing us to lose the desire to photograph? Do we prefer to reside and gain knowledge in this digitally constructed ‘space’ rather than the real world?

It seems that as a society, we strive to be modern; we all have televisions (now seen as a vital part of a child's education) and computers are becoming common occurrence in the home, many of which are online . But along with this, we also have video games, mobile phones, electronic personal organisers; all symbols of the modern family. Technological advances in broadcasting and telecommunications seem to be keeping us in the home, the world comes to us instead of the other way round. Thus, we seem to be exchanging the real for the simulated and we prefer “surface over depth… play over seriousness” . Because of this, our perception of the world in terms of time and space is irreversibly changing. Susan Sontag states:

“Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and fait divers. The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. It is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity, but which confers on each moment the character of a mystery”


Sontag implies that the world is represented through photographs; if we were to apply this notion to contemporary society, then it could be said that the world is being represented through the screen; that the surface of the print and the world ‘within’ it can be likened to the surface of the computer screen and the virtual space it taps into. Indeed, it seems that Internet technology serves as an antithesis for Sontag's argument of the camera's view of the world which “denies interconnectedness”(Sontag).

The way we think about ourselves in relation to the world is reaching a critical juncture and the malleability of the real caused by computer technology seems to underpin current notions of postmodernity. In the following three sections, I will analyse the effect of digital technology on visual culture in terms of three distinct human perceptions; time, memory and space.

1. Real-time

“…photography is consistently positioned by its commentators within some sort of play between activity and passivity, presence and absence, time and space, fixity and transciency, observer and observed, real and representation, original and imitation, identity and difference - and the list could go on. "


Here, Geoffrey Batchen's argument is one of a duality which can be applied as easily to the ‘conception of photography’ to the binary logic of computation, to the zero and one digits that act as the building blocks of the digital image. Batchen seems to suggest the photography operates between these states, that the photograph is at the same time “real and representation” (Batchen); that is, however, if we except the photograph as truth. By viewing Alexander Gardner's photograph ‘Portrait of Lewis Payne', we experience this duality; as Barthes states “He is dead and he is going to die…” . The image plays with our temporal understanding; our rationality tells us that he is dead, yet as we look at the photograph; we experience life, frozen at the time the shutter was released. Barthes refers to this as “the defeat of Time”, Lewis Payne has been immortalised in the photograph. In relation to this, in his essay ‘Will image move us still?’ Kevin Robins goes on to suggest:

“Photographs relate to anxieties and fears in the face of mortality, and may then enable the imaginative possession and modification of those feelings”


He then argues that modern rationality has “sought to occlude the sources of mortal fear” (Robins) . In terms of the digital image, our rationality tells us that what we are seeing is not necessarily truth. Indeed, neither does the digital image necessarily depict any kind of reality as it undermines any notion of the image being a “slice of time” (Sontag) . In this respect, the digital image has more in common with the painting, as it is by definition a ‘construct’; it is an image which is controlled at every point (every pixel), like a painter may control every brushstroke. In ‘The Reconfigured Eye', William J. Mitchell discusses the photograph as an analog representation; it seems that in terms of the digital revolution, this distinction is now being applied to any non-digital means of representation (for example: the analog watch, analog broadcasting, analog sound reproduction). The analog nature of the photograph allows “an indefinite amount of information” (Mitchell) to be contained in the image; it is a photochemical reaction to the wavelengths of light, therefore unlimited by any set pattern or structure. The different in the digital image; here the image is constructed of a grid of pixels, each one assigned a value dictating its colour or intensity. Because of this, the digital image is infinitely malleable, we are given absolute control over ever pixel; this causes it to be far removed from the “fragile integrity of the photograph's surface” (Mitchell). It can also be argued that because of this, the digitally constructed image is ‘outside of time’; it transcends any notion of it being a representation of any moment. It seems that the digital image does not possess the “binary distinctions” (Batchen) of what Barthes refers to as the Punctum and the Studium (the two properties with which Barthes formulates the meaning or message of a photograph), as these distinctions rely on the objective truth of the un-tampered image. To reinforce this, Mitchell describes the photograph as “… a direct physical imprint, like a fingerprint left at the scene of a crime”. If this is true, then photography is an invaluable medium; the photograph is a depiction of a real event, therefore it is a unique representation, one that no other medium can reproduce.

This notion seems to be far removed from those critics who suggest that photography is a dying medium; that the empowerment that new technology gives us transcends the need for us to use the analog processes of photography. In ‘The Decisive Moment', Henry Cartier-Bresson recalls:

“I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life - to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”


Here, Cartier-Bresson refers to the freedom and empowerment that using a camera gives; this ability to visually preserve a moment in time and to personally dictate what is captured as the shutter is released. In his essay ‘Defining the Moment’ , Mark Durden discusses Bresson's notion of the “decisive moment” in contrast to the “calculated and controlled” images of Jeff Wall. It seems that Wall's photographs are more akin to paintings and digitally constructed images. They are controlled like the cinematographic image; without this instantaniety, without the reliance on some degree of luck. Indeed, to Durden, Bresson's images are about “raising something out of the temporal flux”; and that Walls staged images “draw upon a very different context and tradition”. In Bresson's photograph ‘Behind the Saint-Lazare Station’ with see this ‘decisive moment’ in the most literal sense. Yet, our rationality tells us that that some degree of ‘staging’ must have taken place in the production of this image. Indeed, it almost seems to perfect in its capturing of the event; questions may asked over its authenticity. It seems that digital technology is taking these concepts of ‘staged’ and ‘constructed’ to new heights; to be digital is to be ‘outside’ of an event in time, where reality and truth become blurred, intermingled. The staging of what appears to be a single and real event becomes easier to produce as digital manipulation technology becomes more available. Thus, what is created is an event somehow outside the boundaries of reality; what postmodern theorists call the ‘hyper-real’. Baudrillard's theories on the ‘hyper-real’ are the basis for the arguments Anne-Marie Willes raises in her essay ‘Digitisation and the Living Death of Photography’:

“Cultural theorists have come to see the way in which hyper-reality menaces and annihilates the real, with the world of manufactured imagery becoming the instance of first encounter and point of reference for all experience.”


It seems that within this ‘hyper-real’ space of the digital domain, there is no referent, no point of origin of experience. Reality through the image becomes malleable, our perception of time becomes blurred. Willes uses an the example of new technology being used in hair salons, where you can sample different hairstyles on a digitised picture of yourself. Here, it seems that technology is allowing us to predict the future; we can try out various futures before we actually commit to one. It also seems to remove us from our imagination, as it becomes visualised on the screen and in effect, ‘hyper-real’. The simulation of the real in terms of space is topic I wish to address later; but first I wish to further explore the ‘hyper-real’ nature of memory in relation to photography, and how digital technology is somehow forcing us to abandon our memories through modern consumer culture; the internet and multimedia.

2. Accessed Memories

“Family snaps - pictures of ourselves - need to be understood in relation to an enormous flow of images programmed into leisure commodities: video motion, computer game characters, even the computer graphic user interfaces in whose image environments we may feel more practically at home than our family album.”


In his essay ‘Domestic Photography and Digital Culture’, Don Slater discusses photography in terms of domesticity, consumer culture and leisure; how “many home entertainment activities and technologies - are crucially image based”. The photograph has been a major factor in defining our history in terms of the family unit. We look at photographs of ourselves to remind us of the past; to reaffirm our memories in a visual preservation of a moment in time. When Kodak introduced mass-photography with the invention of the hand-held roll film camera, it quickly became the most common of leisure pursuits. The ‘snapshot’ camera, taken on family excursions, soon became a symbol of the modern family. They were relatively cheap and easy to use; designed for those who were not serious photographers, who just wanted a means to record events in their lives. With the resulting photographs, we build up a narrative of events; we arrange our albums of images in a chronology that mirrors our linear perception of time, we progress through our lives secure in the knowledge that important events have been recorded photographically and truthfully so that we can store this information and refer back to it when we feel the need to reminisce.

In her work ‘Beyond the Family Album’, Jo Spence uses a series of snapshots of herself (displayed chronologically from baby photos to images taken at middle age) to explore her personal history in terms of “gender, family, class” and “appearance” (Slater). It seems that this work highlights the importance of family photographs to define self identity, so that we can look at photographs of ourselves and see a visual record of our history (however true this is to our actual experiences at the time).

However, this attitude towards the family album in terms of both personal history and leisure seems to be in a state of radical change; modern leisure pursuits seem to consist of (digital) television, computer games, the internet and email; we thrive on being able to access any information we want at any time, to communicate with anyone at anytime whether it be via telephone or email. In terms of contrasting this with the pursuits of the ‘pre-information age’, Don Slater states:

“…in contrast to snapshooting which, however conventionalised, involves self-representation, digital culture involves tapping into flows of images which originate outside the the private sphere - the home hacker”


Here, Slater seems to be referring to the influx of Internet-connected computers in our homes. We seem to take pleasure in the fact that we have all this information at our disposal; that we can instantly ‘be’ anywhere in the world and tap into this information. Indeed, it seems that through this new medium, work and leisure have become one; many people are now setting up business from home and using technology which is constantly coming down in price. Using a computer, an internet connection, a scanner (a device which converts printed material to digitised images which can then be manipulated and outputted to print) and a printer, we have tools available to us that can put a home-based business onto the world scene. From these same tools we can educate and entertain ourselves through the many on-line entertainment services and ‘infotainment’ products aimed at children, we can also purchase goods such as books and CDs. Furthermore, with digital technology now being used in broadcasting, it is likely that in the future, we will see the the Internet and television merge to form one huge resource which will act as a gateway to much of our knowledge and understanding about the world.

Tomlinson calls this “increasing home-centredness of consumer expenditure”, the ‘Privatisation of Leisure’; in that much of our lives in terms of consumerism, leisure, entertainment and education are increasingly being conducted from the home. As a consequence of this ‘privatisation’, we remove ourselves from the activity of self-representation through the image. Our sense of self-identity is dissolving, losing itself in the cosmopolitan and ubiquitous space of the virtual. In discussing the significance of the family album, Don Slater states:

“…the ‘family album’ invokes a privileged relation to time, a sense that identity is constructed through continuity and memory. The images themselves have the status as icon: images with aura and halo, irreplaceable and materially bearing the past for us and for a family which transcends the individual”


As we concern ourselves more with the present and the empowerment that new technologies give, the role of photography as a means to represent ourselves and to provide us with our identity through history is being undermined. The ‘irreplaceable’ and the ‘material’ are being replaced by the ‘throw-away’ and the ‘virtual’; we can access so much information that the information itself becomes banal, meaningless, discardable.

We have seen how technologies have altered our leisure activities in relation to the way in which photography has been in important factor in defining our personal history. But digital technology - in particular the Internet - offers us a much more manipulative method of defining our identity, one which has the potential to alter our perception of memory as being visual.

In her book ‘Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet', Sherry Turkle states:

“The Internet is another element of the computer culture that has contributed to thinking about identity as multiplicity. On it, people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves.”


Here, Turkle is addressing “multiplicity” in the context of computer mediated communication methods such as email and what are known as MUDs (Multi-User Domain - a text based virtual environment in a which a group of people accessing from anywhere in the world can hold a ‘real-time’ conversation). Using this technology, people can construct any identity for themselves; they can “construct new selves through social interaction”. There are no social barriers in this virtual space; people are free to define their identity in any way they please. It seems that in this respect, self representation through the photograph, this ‘mirror’ of ourselves that serves as a visual record of the past has been given over to self manipulation within the present. Furthermore, this concept of “multiplicity” can not only be applied to the possibility of multiple identities, but also to this sense of interconnectedness that we are given through Internet technology; the fact that by using a number of windows on the computer screen, we can be ‘in’ more than one place at once.

It seems that as society, a major implication of the ‘information revolution’ is that we have a pre-occupation with technology. Children are increasingly being taught using computers and video-game machines seem to be a major factor in their leisure activities. From this, we can say that the camera is playing a less important role in the modern family. Therefore, without this tool for recording our lives, memories about ourselves supported my visual documentation (photographs) are becoming less important to us. In ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance', Paul Virilio writes:

“Man fascinated with himself, constructs his double, his intelligent specter, and entrusts the keeping of his knowledge to a reflection. We're still here in the domain of cinematic illusion, of the mirage of information precipitated on the computer screen.”


Here, Virilio seems to refer to the human desire for self-representation through photography, and the seduction of this “mirage of information”. His wording seems to exemplify this notion of the Internet as being, a figment of reality; it mirrors our journey from the real to the unreal.

So far, I have explored our altering perceptions of time and ‘self’ through digital technology. It seems that closely related to this is our changing spatial awareness, how digital technology seems to be negating traditional perceptions of space and warps the spatial fabric of the physical world.

3. Web Space

bq."…the emerging civic structures and spatial arrangements of the digital era will profoundly affect our access to economic opportunities and public services, the character and content of public discourse, the forms of cultural activity, the enaction of power, and the experiences that give shape and texture to our daily routines.”

In his book ‘City of Bits', William J. Mitchell discusses the Internet as a metaphor of the city. However, whereas the city occupies a physical space (one in which people have to overcome that space in order to get from one place to another), the internet defies space in physical terms; rather, it resides virtually in what has come to be called ‘cyberspace’. Through the computer screen, distance becomes irrelevant; space is defined purely in terms of the storage of information. Indeed, it seems that our connection with anywhere in the world is dictated not by distance but by bandwidth.

In the past, the photographic image was not only in itself a symbol of modernity, but also a means of documenting symbols of modernity; Albert Renger-Patzsch - a pioneer of the movement known as ‘The New Objectivity’ - was one such photographer. From the 1920's onwards, he produced photographs which suggested the duality between technology and nature and in doing so, used modern structures as the basis to document humankind's technological achievements. That this subject was easy to document, as the evidence was real, it was an object that could be photographed. However, it seems that we need to find a new means of fulfilling our desire to document modernity as the modern ‘structures’ of the virtual have no physical presence; So, the camera's ability to document modernity has reached its end.

Discussing Frederic Jameson's text on Postmodern theory, Sherry Turkle states:

“Jameson suggested that what was needed was a ‘new aesthetic of cognitive mapping,’ a new way of spatial thinking that would permit us at least to register the complexities of our world”


This seems to suggest that for us to comprehend ‘space’ in our post-industrial, information-based world, our perception of it has to change; that we have to find new ways of representing modernity, which, in the past, has been done through the photographic image. However, it seems that visualising this new ‘virtual’ space is difficult, as there is no physical referent, no “objects to think with”; the space that is constructed is purely imaginary, one which helps us come to terms with the non-physical ‘presence’ the Internet implies. Consequently, just as modernist photographers made work that was about both the modern environment and the medium itself, new media artists make work about and specific to the Internet. Indeed, the photographic process seems to centred round the individual and ones singular relationship with the space photographed; this notion seems to be lost in the discourse surrounding new media art, where collaboration and interaction (eg. over the internet) seems to be a dominant factor in perceiving many contemporary works. Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie have worked collaboratively to produce a number works which address aspects of space and identity on the Internet. For example, in their piece entitled ‘Homespun’ , two video cameras were set up in each of the artists home environments (at opposite ends of the country) which captured two 360 degree motion images of the kitchen in each of the two houses. The two motion images are seen one on top of the other and as they move we see visual relationships between the two images; they pan at the same speed and are synchronised to capture the similarity of the rooms. The piece seems to suggest a deconstruction of physical space, making comment on the limitless and paradoxical ‘space’ of the Internet.

Through multimedia, we are offered simulation of the real, something we can relate to. Here, graphical ‘buttons’ can be pressed to help us navigate round a database of information; one ‘window’ can simulate text in a book, another may simulate a video monitor. It's all part of re-assuring the user; the simulation

of real-life objects helps us relate to what we see on the screen.

‘Hypermedia’ is the term used to describe information that is linked electronically, usually text based information with links branching off to the information to which it refers. In his book ‘Being Digital’ Nicholas Negroponte states:

Information space is by no means limited to three dimensions. An expression of an idea or train of thought can include a multidimensional network of pointers to further elaborations or arguments, which can be evoked or ignored.”


To help us visualise this phenomenon, Negroponte gives ‘dimension’ to what is necessarily ‘dimensionless’. He argues that the structure of this text should be “imagined like a molecular model”. It seems that we are able to float around this model, to pick and choose which information we want to consume. Many would argue that this in contrast to the linear way in which we read a book (from cover to cover). But Negroponte seems to argue that as we read a book “we may browse quite haphazardly”, suggesting that the experience of Hypermedia can be likened to that of reading of the written page.

From the model defined by hypermedia, we can surmise that it has no core, no centre from which everything branches. In her book ‘Zeros and Ones', Sadie Plant discusses this notion in terms of the Internet as a decentralised phenomenon:

“The growth of the Net has been continuous with the way it works. No central hub or command structure has constructed it, and its emergence is that of a parasite, rather than an organising host.”


Later in the book, she goes on to describe the Internet in relation to Rhizomes - plant structures that “defy categorisation as individuated entities”


It seems that the matrix of information that makes up the global network of electronic communication has become the new landscape in which we educate, entertain and represent ourselves. Through digital culture, our perception of the world and of ourselves is changing. In turn, we must accept new ways of seeing, new ways of documenting the world in the post-photographic era. The objective truth of the photographic image is being eroded by a technology; the image has become malleable, it has become easier to distort visual truth with the use of image manipulation software.

As technology gradually replaces the real with simulation - graphical user interfaces in which we gain knowledge about the world - it seems that we are losing the desire to photograph. Physical objects become increasingly irrelevent, therefore the need to document them photographically becomes irrelevent. Technological advances in entertainment and education tools seem to divert our attention away from the real world and attracts us to the screen. Our interests move away from social interaction, in which photography has played a vital part. Consequently, personal history through the snapshots of the family album seems to be taking less of an imporatant role in our lives, thus without these images to aid our memories, our history becomes blurred.

Photography has traditionally been perceived as a means to acquire knowledge about the world, taking pictures is a means of self-enlightenment. The ‘information revolution’ has given us new means with which we can enlighten ourselves; we can tap into this global network of information and learn about anything we choose (through the still image, video, audio and text).

Our perception of the world in terms of the physical is changing; as the speed of data transfer around the globe increases, so does our desire for information.