Writing for the New Inquiry, Trevor Paglen examines the far-reaching implications of the fact that “the overwhelming majority of images are now made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop.” This is a new and radical development in the history of visual culture, writes Paglen, and among other things, it “allows for the automation of vision on an enormous scale and, along with it, the exercise of power on dramatically larger and smaller scales than have ever been possible.” Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
But over the last decade or so, something dramatic has happened. Visual culture has changed form. It has become detached from human eyes and has largely become invisible. Human visual culture has become a special case of vision, an exception to the rule. The overwhelming majority of images are now made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop. The advent of machine-to-machine seeing has been barely noticed at large, and poorly understood by those of us who’ve begun to notice the tectonic shift invisibly taking place before our very eyes.
The landscape of invisible images and machine vision is becoming evermore active. Its continued expansion is starting to have profound effects on human life, eclipsing even the rise of mass culture in the mid 20th century. Images have begun to intervene in everyday life, their functions changing from representation and mediation, to activations, operations, and enforcement. Invisible images are actively watching us, poking and prodding, guiding our movements, inflicting pain and inducing pleasure. But all of this is hard to see.
Cultural theorists have long suspected there was something different about digital images than the visual media of yesteryear, but have had trouble putting their finger on it. In the 1990s, for example, there was much to do about the fact that digital images lack an “original.” More recently, the proliferation of images on social media and its implications for inter-subjectivity has been a topic of much discussion among cultural theorists and critics. But these concerns still fail to articulate exactly what’s at stake.
One problem is that these concerns still assume that humans are looking at images, and that the relationship between human viewers and images is the most important moment to analyze–but it’s exactly this assumption of a human subject that I want to question.
Image: Trevor Paglen, Lake Tenaya, Maximally Stable External Regions; Hough Transform, 2016. Via the New Inquiry.