The Power of the Image: Objectivity, Authenticity, Reconstruction

As I’ve suggested in previous posts, it seems that to strive for realness in reconstructions is essentially deceitful in both method and objective should it be done without extremely high degrees of transparency. Unless one is very clear about the assumptions and conjecture that was involved in the reconstruction, then the submission may have the appearance of fact. This is fraudulent because fact is a fundamentally elusive and, perhaps, illusory notion. The ‘black box’ technology we use to create digital reconstructions, with its complex, cloaked and instantaneous nature, can imbue a kind of authority on the products that was not intended and does not exist. Jeremy Hugget(2004) has called this The Fetish of Magic and his remarks are correct. This effect is underlined or bolstered by, what I would term The Fetish of the Numerical or, indeed, digital. The nature of computing equipment is that it performs computations beyond human ability (certainly in terms of time) in a moment. Numbers have an essentially concrete and factual essence about them. They are not fluid or concerned with opinion. Therefore, using them as a layer through which to represent and understand gives the representations and their inferences an essence of fact too.

To create a hyper real digital representation of a physical object or site is to enhance what one believes to know about the subject, and creatively contrive or invent what is necessary to fill in the gaps. In other words, to diminish or conceal what is unclear or unknown about the subject. This is obviously problematic and beyond the mandate of a scholarly métier. These imaginings or improvisations may be anything from physical attributes to actual utilitarian function. This method of creative thought and invention is both essential and effective, especially when preformed by an expert in the respective field, or better yet, on the subject itself. However, it could be spurious, unsound and frankly fanciful if done without due caveats and clarity.

There is an ethical and vocational imperative here. To do the best work is not and should never be just about using the best technology and producing the most spectacular representations. That is the work of Hollywood and I think that it is important to recognise that Digital Heritage and Digital Humanities have benefitted laterally from the film and game industry’s technological developments and, by extension, their huge financial muscle. CGI and such are there to create illusion. The illusion is not the operative term here; for that is implicit in the action. What is important is the notion that creating a digital representation is just that: a creative act.There are decisions made in regards to method, tools and what to include and disregard. This makes it a subjective and singular process; exceptional in both action and product. Digital representations should be underlined as such.

We exist in a materialistic and visually orientated age. As Guy Debord’s(1967) work suggests, and Marshall McLuhan (1964) had earlier remarked, this is a time concerned with the eye and the spectacular. As such, our technological, and therefore methodological, efforts tend to be bias towards what is visually appealing. This is dangerous ground. Our technology, inherited, as stated above, from fields whose aim it is to produce the spectacular and visually vibrant, is consumed with these ends. Further to this, our methods and endeavours are determined to a great extent by these technologies. Jeremy Hugget has suggested that this ‘hand me down’ technology brings with it baggage from the disciplines they were conceived for. This means that the employment of such technologies requires both mindfulness and transparency so the audience, the consumer, is aware of this and not duped.

Authenticity in the digital realm is a tricky concept. In terms of digital surrogates of physical artefacts, they are by definition inauthentic. They are mere descriptions, represented visually through code. They have no place in our 3D world. They are devoid of physical presence and meaning. Should, say weight or texture be encoded in such digital objects they will simply be descriptive. The weight will be an assigned value and may only be experienced through haptic feedback or read. This is literally a number being assigned to a real characteristic and then manifested through an output such as a haptic glove. No theoretically different from handing somebody a bag of sugar and saying ‘this is what a kilo of flour feels like’. It is simply more deceptive.

As Schreibmann(2010) points out, in the digital realm: ‘authentic is not the same as genuine or original’. Authenticity must describe reliability and integrity. This is not problematic once it is recognised; for it has always been the foundation and hallmark of scholarly endeavour. Schreibmann again: ‘The questions to ask of digital representations changes. Are they accurate in their representation? Are they trustworthy in that they do indeed represent what they purport to represent, and are they in some way certifiable.’

Trustworthy or transparent is not notions closely associated with the fields of visual arts, a place where much of the technology we’re concerned with originates from. It is a windfall that certain disciplines of the creative arts can still afford to develop such incredible tools and that Humanities scholars can benefit from them. Their ‘incredible’ nature must be maintained, however, in order to preserve the scholarly practitioners as credible.

 

 

Bibliography

Debord, Guy. The society of the spectacle. New York, 1967.

Hugget, Jeremy. “Archeaology and the New Technological Fetishism.” Archeologia e Calcolatori 15 (2004): 81-92.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Routledge, 1964.

Schreibman, Susan. “Digital Representation and the Hyper Real .” Poetess Archive Journal (2010).

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. . London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996.

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