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Trevor Paglen on the new regime of invisible images


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.




I should deliver a more elaborate explanation, when I say that I think in Paglen’s texts are some contradictions and inaccuracies. But for now I feel urged to point to Vilém Flusser’s “Towards a Philosophy of Photography”, that from my point of view represents a brilliant methodology and vocabulary to think about automation, apparatuses programming us and some other aspects that the above text deals with. (I can only assume that Paglen hasn’t read it.)

This is not meant as a flat-out critique, which I don’t feel suited to deliver, (and which I think to be unjustified, nod to the artist). Just a modest hint to what I think is a remarkable text that takes on a lot of the questions that presently need to be answered. Flusser: “How to create room for freedom” “in the realm of the automated, programmed and programming apparatus[es]”? (p.59) or “If everything comes about by chance, and if everything comes to nothing, where is there any room left for human freedom?” (p.57)

To at least mention two of my thoughts:

One little inquiry I had, was whether “machine-readable-culture” would be a more precise term. This would consequently mean to have a precise look if aspects Paglen mentions can be better subsumed under data-related issues. In other words I was wondering whether some of them are specific only to images. “Invisible visual culture” however feels to work as a metaphor for our human understanding, which on the other hand I like.
Also I felt reminded of the thread “Art Documents: The Politics of Visibility …”, that I feel is eeriely linked to this one and discusses problems of representation. This also can help to convey an example of the slight imprecisions I see, e.g. when Paglen states that: Images “no longer simply represent things, but actively intervene in everyday life.” The question of representation is a complex one in itself and images (not only technical images -> Flusser) have intervened in everday life since they existed.