Reality is Overrated

15 May

Awesome PicHave you ever had that feeling where you come across something that stops you dead in your tracks, and then you take a step back, and you think,”Yeah, maybe that wasn’t such a big deal,” and then you let go of it for a few days, and then you come roaring back, and say, “No, that’s pretty messed up, the world needs to know about this.” I did recently, and you’re about to hear about it.

I just got a brand new Android phone, and as is recommended when you join forces with the Droid, I recognized that things are easier when you sign your life over to Google. Setting aside my knowledge that Google’s promotional offer of 50GB of free Google Drive space for two years is the cloud storage equivalent of giving away dime bags at a junior high, I agreed to have all the pictures on my phone automatically uploaded to “Drive” for “safekeeping.” I have kids, so the odds of my phone and all of its pictures ending up in any number of compromising situations involving bathtubs or impromptu aerodynamic trials are relatively high compared to Google accidentally losing my data.

Kung_Fu_Panda_Fan_art_by_Slacker_RBSo I’m merrily going about my life, taking too many pictures and videos of my kids instead of enjoying the reality of their company, and generally doing a serviceable job of being a decent dad. Flash forward a few hours and I get a notification that not only have my photos been uploaded to Google Drive, but that there is a new “Auto Awesome” picture waiting for me. If you’re not familiar with this feature, it basically adds special effects to pictures that you’ve taken that meet certain criteria. The effects can range from the mildly amusing and patently fake effect of adding a snow animation to a picture taken when it’s snowing to the moderately impressive compositing of several related pictures into a short, stuttery animation. There are other effects like photobooth-style compositing and an impressive feature that combines photos and videos into a slideshow/video presentation. Basically, if you’re the kind of person who likes to spend hours trying to turn your personal photos and videos into amateur-looking mini-masterpieces, then this is bad news for you, because the Auto-Awesome algorithm does it automatically and it’s actually pretty decent. As a technology enthusiast, I applaud the questionable diversion of shareholder value into the development of what is actually a very sophisticated application of powerful computer vision algorithms.  So far, so good.

More-Awesome-Than-A-Double-Rainbow_4663-lBut not really. Because Google didn’t make it snow in my picture, nor auto-create a panorama, but instead applied the “Smile” effect. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a child under the age of five, then you already know that your ok-fine-that’s-good-enough shooting ratio is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150:1. If you’re trying to take a picture of two or more children under five, then chances are one of you will burst into tears before an acceptable image is captured. And yet there we were, my two-year-old son, without any coercion or threats on my part was hugging my four-year-old daughter, who was patiently and willingly tolerating and even reciprocating it. I immediately took about ten pictures and felt that I had achieved moderate success. I immediately checked them out and found the usual assortment of unprovoked distraction, unilateral nose-picking, and asynchronous emotional expression that characterizes EVERY picture  I’ve ever taken of them.

dont-think-just-be-awesomeBut there was one gem in the bunch. He is hugging her with an angelic expression of contentment and security on his face, and she is smiling and touching his head in a loving way, accepting his embrace. However, her smile is tempered by a subtle reflective aspect as if in that moment she understands that she will always be older, and he will always be younger, and she will always be his big sister and while they will learn from each other and grow together, she will always be there for him in the special and unique way that only a big sister can be. Then I checked out the Auto-Awesome picture.

The Smile effect had identified a different picture in which my daughter has a totally fake senior portrait smile whereas my son looks like he just bonged a 6-pack of Coors Light and is about to yak. It then combined my daughter’s “classic” smile from this picture with the content smile of my son from the first picture to create the “perfect” photo. Except, it’s not perfect, it’s unsettling, because the moment captured by this Auto-Awesome picture NEVER HAPPENED in reality. The algorithm cleverly merged the two pictures with the “best” smiles, and it’s basically impossible to detect the modification. Now before I launch into total rant mode, please note that I understand:

  • Auto Awesome did not delete my original photos
  • Auto Awesome can be turned off
  • Auto Awesome photos can be deleted
  • You can replicate and exceed the results of Auto-Awesome on your own
  • I have free will
  • Google does not force you to use this feature
  • It’s a free world (online . . . mostly)
  • Don’t be evil

080312-total-recallI am fascinated with the concept of the plasticity of memory. Beyond that, I am obsessed with the pursuit of capturing and articulating my truest sense of an experience, and in denial of its ultimate futility. The idea that repeated viewings of an Auto-Awesome picture have the potential to alter  your memory of what actually happened is personally horrifying to me.

It also concerns me that as a culture, we not only have the capability to recreate our past, but that it can be automatically done for us, and have it be considered “awesome.” I know it’s all in fun, and it’s probably just another R&D project run amok, but I still think that the implications of playing fast and loose with “what really happened” are worthy of reflection. Social media already provides us with a powerful platform to reinvent ourselves and to present a crafted fantasy identity to the world for passive consumption. I understand that these types of services do not force you to make misrepresentations, but they provide the always-available and tempting option to tease the truth into something more, and to craft our online identity into the ideal that we have failed to achieve in meatspace. There is nothing inherently wrong with putting on a good show — we generally don’t show up to a social event in reality without having made some attempt to look our best. However, we still retain the intent and the creativity to design and execute those decisions in front of real people. “Auto” removes the intent, “Awesome” removes the creativity, and the internet removes the meaningful context. Combined with the force multiplier of social networking, it’s the death of reality by a billion tiny cuts.

Finally, aside from the statement that it makes about what is “worth remembering,” or that an algorithm can be trusted to make that decision for you, this type of technology has the potential to rob us of the nuance and beauty that we were trying to capture in the first place. Because if you think about it, once you turn your back on reality, what else is there?

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