An algorithm is a clear instruction, today usually directed at a computer.
A task is then fulfilled according to this instruction. Most computer programs are based on algorithms.
Neuronal networks, now becoming increasingly powerful, work differently: they can learn on their own and form the foundation of artificial intelligence. Computers can already play chess1 and go2 better than human beings and can generate pictures that people (and other computers) mistake for photographs.3
We are all absolutely equal. Apple knows each one of us.
Hierarchies are becoming flatter. Companies no longer think it important to address us in a polite manner. Apple started to use informal pronouns in German in 2009 for its information and advertising.
Apple has a talent for designing devices, software, and cloud services that we like to have around us. Apple made the computer our constant companion. There are more and more devices for the ordinary person. The time of the experts who understand how iPhones and MacBooks work has passed.
We will never agree on whether the apparatus or the photographer plays the more important part in creating a photograph.
The objective magic of the photograph—a quite different aesthetic form to that of painting—derives from the fact that the object has done all the work. Of course, photographers never admit this, and maintain that any originality derives from their inspiration, and from their photographic interpretation of the world.4
Here, Jean Baudrillard does away with author along with the device. It is not the photographer, but the object itself that plays the decisive role.
German copyright law counteracts this by distinguishing between “photographic works” and “photographs.” The first are “personal creative creations that go beyond the everyday and are characterized by individuality and a minimum of creativity.” The latter are those “that possess no work quality, but represent a personal achievement.”5
Then there are the pictures that lack “personal achievement.” Now we are back at Baudrillard’s definition. But also at an entire series of more or less automatic visual creations, like images from surveillance cameras or webcams.
In the meantime, visual recognition software is so far advanced that there is no need for a human beholder.6
The attempt to represent the world in black and white, right and wrong, but with as much diversity as possible.
Zeroes and ones. At issue is to represent all information with these two possibilities. This is necessary for a computer to compute. Its transistors only know two states: either electricity is flowing or it isn’t. For an image, this would mean initially choosing either black or white for each pixel: the world would look rather dismal, there would be no intermediate shades. To alleviate this problem, several of these bits (the smallest unit of two possibilities) are assembled to form a larger unit. If we take eight bits, already 28 or 256 possibilities can be represented. If these are divided across the scale of white to black, it results in such fine shades of gray that the human eye cannot differ between two neighboring shades. These 256 shades of gray represent a perfect scale of brightness for the human eye.
This is the basis of all digitalization. All data is divided up into discrete bits and presented to the computer as clear values. The advantages are self-evident: the computer can thus always compute perfectly. The disadvantage is the unavoidable loss of information: it is not possible to obtain more depth at later point in time that goes beyond the previously set number of bits. All intermediate values are pure speculation. After digitization, no additional information can be obtained.
Something one cannot look inside of.
Something that cannot be understood.
Something that one can look inside of but not understand
Our digitally networked world should really be entirely transparent and easy to understand: ultimately, every computer and the algorithms driving it has a plan that cannot be deviated from. In the meantime, the number of devices is so high, networking so complete, and their pervasion across all areas of life so far advanced that this would be unthinkable. At the moment, there is a focus on practical uses of artificial intelligence. This will further exponentiate inaccessibility.
A bot is a robot without a body.
The term is derived from the word “robot,” which comes from the Slavic word “работа” or “robot” for work. The robot is a worker: and we all know about its specific qualities: it’s an automatic worker that never tires, carries out orders without hesitation, and does not ask ethical questions or about the purpose of it all.
A bot is a bodiless robot. Software that tirelessly does the same tasks over and over and thus generates the huge treasure of data that forms the massive wealth of gigantic internet companies.
On the image in the newspaper, a man, no longer young, is sitting with a cigarette in hand in the kitchen of an apartment, wearing an undershirt. It is the photographer Michael Schmidt. Whether it is really a kitchen, I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m linking the image of the photographer with a text that accompanies his work in the book Waffenruhe.7 The text was written by Einar Schleef.
The series of photographs is powerful. The motifs refuse any clear interpretation: they sink in deep darkness, without ever really appearing clearly. The lack of focus directs the gaze through the images.
For me, the work of Michael Schmidt embodies the qualities of classical photography: apparently objective photographs of the city are placed next to splinter-like, fragmentary gazes, and portraits. They condense in their collation and participatory viewing a melancholy testimony to a lost world, formed by the expanding presence of recent German history.
The contrast could not be any greater to a digital visual world that apparently no longer has an object, a world that is formed by what the algorithms offer and the content moderators allow. Things that offend these norms are erased without further commentary. Nudity, violence, addiction, suffering, and death: all of that does not exist on Instagram or Facebook.
Something that has a shape but no body. A synonym for computer resources with a physical presence that is hidden from both users and programmers.
Rarely is a term so honest and at the same time so hazy in the truest sense of the term.
What is it exactly, a cloud? Clouds are computing resources located in a place unknown to the user: for purposes of storage and computing capacity, but also applications for servers or client software. It is rather unclear what the term exactly describes. It can be anything that the user does not understand. But what’s even worse: the providers of these services often themselves are unaware of where they are located. The provider also takes its infrastructure via the cloud. Here, we structurally approach the visual opposite of the cloud, the black box.
“Creative freedom meets absolute control.”8
For the founding of the East German Socialist Unity Party, the well-wishers appeared in droves. Among them the good fairy, who wished Chairman Walther Ulbricht honest, smart comrades.
But the bad fairy could not be kept from attending the important event. Although she came too late to stop the wish of the good fairy, she was able to keep it from coming true in its entirety. All three of the qualities mentioned will never come together: either the party members are honest, but they aren’t clever. Of course there are clever comrades, but they are not honest. And naturally there are people who are both honest and clever, but they are not party members.
“From today onward, painting is dead.” 9
From today onward, photography is dead.10
Photography has always been the death of the moment that it records.
Photography saves the moment from passing, letting it return at any time.
The term fake is very popular at the moment in the framework of the fake-news debate. Who would believe someone who reported true news?
The fake is as old as photography. And it is so tempting, because photographers have always had a the reputation for reproducing the visible world objectively. Digital technology has made it easier to create visual falsifications, but also to reveal them.
They are spread as fake news not so much as photoshopped images, but as suggestive combinations of image and text, so-called memes. Their visibility and thus their power come from likes and sharing in the social networks, where users, click-workers11 or bots without editorial control exercise their freedom of opinion.
What’s coming for you is not so nice
But you need to go when it’s time
Your time has passed so long ago
In the GDR and the Federal Republic
Things will never be the way they were
The old times, they were heavy as lead12
Photographers now feel cheated. They miss the time when knowledge and skill were required to take a picture. To take a good picture, not only did you need to know about camera technique and lighting you also needed to know your way around the dark room. And not to mention the many devices that were necessary to take good photographs. We should also not forget that patience and luck were necessary to capture the decisive moment.
Today, when truly everyone is taking pictures, this is no longer the case. You don’t even need to intend to take a picture to create one. It happens in a virtually accidental fashion. With your mobile phone. These computers now take the photographs themselves. Surveillance cameras are just the tip of the iceberg, visible only because data privacy advocates are interested—at least in Germany.
Here, photographers and factory workers share the same fate: they are no longer needed in the post-industrial economy. But you can’t say photography itself has ceased so maybe, farewell photographer?
Did you read the general terms and conditions before opening your Gmail, Instagram, or Flickr account?
At google.com (Google, Gmail, YouTube), the beginning sounds reassuring: “What belongs to you stays yours.”13 But it goes on as follows:
When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services[…].13
And don’t think it’s any better elsewhere: Facebook’s terms and conditions (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp) are quite similar:
For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable,sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.14
Here you can have a ball and upload anything to your heart’s content so long as it’s not a “violent, nude or partially nude, discriminatory, illegal, injurious, hate-filled, pornographic or sexually suggestive photograph.” How exactly that is defined is left unknown.15
Light, or so one would think, has an effect regardless of whether a film or a sensor is illuminated.
In both cases, the energy of a photon is used. In the first case, a silver salt molecule splits into silver and halogen. In the second case, the energy is used to generate a charge in the sensor.
“We kill people based on metadata.”16
We leave behind a broad swathe of digital data in our path. Of course, our content today is digital. Our telephone conversations, text messages, emails, and photographs as well.
Beside the content, there is also a large amount of metadata, the data that has nothing to do with actual content. In the case of a digital photograph, for example, the time it was shot, the model of the camera and the lens used, the time of exposure, the chosen aperture and focus. With modern cameras and smart phones, the exact location and the direction the camera was pointed is also stored. In addition, there is also data like time and file path that is saved when storing or editing.
For a telephone conversation, there are the numbers involved, the time of the conversation, its duration, and the place where it was carried out.
We are happy when it’s easier to organize our collection of photographs according to place and event. This data is also very interesting for government authorities.
Photography is the epitome of central perspective.
The internet is the epitome of decentralized linking.
The concept of space is omnipresent when dealing with the subject of photography. The camera itself takes its name from the word for “room.” The “dark room” (camera obscura) is a magic, hidden space where photographic moments are resurrected.
On the path towards digitalization, Photoshop introduced the concept of the visual layer. Space flattened and the image became a table.
Finally, images were flattened in their entirety. They flow daily from our smartphones through the web and flood the screens of other devices.
The web offers the best prerequisites for decentralized communication, where transmitter and receiver are equal in status.
But we don’t really want to take every possible perspective from every corner of the world. We are satisfied with the filtered material from influencers and content moderators.
“It is often said that it was the painters who invented Photography … I say, no, it was the chemists.”17
Barthes is here alluding to a special quality of photographic images. They are based on an emulsion of silver halides. When these silver halides are struck by light, they split into silver and halogen. The halogen is released into the air and the silver turns black. In the process of developing, this effect is amplified. The split is irreversible, so an exposed photograph takes on the character of evidence. The photon that struck at the time of exposure has left behind an inalterable impact.
Against the backdrop of this certainty, it turns out that the image that shows a photograph is also attributed a certain value as evidence.
E.g. this was once a term used to describe the chemical development of photographs. Today, the word refers to all the processes in visual production that take place automatically, independent of people.
During the Renaissance, the human being achieved a status all his own as the observer of visual representations. By inventing central perspective, there was a point from which a scene could be observed.
Photography was something like the objectified and automated version of this concept. The beholders took the position of the apparatus.
But when these spatial images lie sequentially next to one another in discrete shades, another beholder moves to the foreground: the machine. The machine is now what records the images, distributes them, analyzes them, and ultimately recognizes them.
Public Domain vs. Fenced Garden
In 2001 I visited Venice with a group of students to view the Biennale. At the time, I owned a laptop computer, but it had no wireless internet capacity. So I didn’t take it along with me to Venice. Instead, we bought a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to keep informed. We divided up the newspaper, and V. took the business section, saying she doesn’t need anything else, that it contains everything she needs to know.
The internet today is dominated more than ever by large companies. Google was one of the first companies to successfully gather all the material available on line with using its bots. By rendering the content accessible via its search machine, it made the web accessible to a large public.
In the meantime, this has changed. Large parts of the web are cut off from general access. Facebook blocks the content of its users not only from the bots of the search machines, but also from visitors who have no Facebook account. Opening a Facebook account means handing over a great deal of personal data to the company, without knowing exactly what data and what happens to it. When reading the General Terms and Conditions, let your fantasy run wild.
“The world is everything that is the case.”18
“It has been shown that information is a key component of the world. At some point, we have to take leave of the naïve realist view according to which the world itself exists without our influence and regardless of our observation.”19
Decisive moment: Is that a wrap?
Live Photo: Have you shared it already?
While the old-school photographer hopes for a felicitous constellation of good lighting, a powerful and expressive motif, interesting subjects, the right combination of focal length, aperture, and exposure time, and has to wait to capture the decisive moment,20 the iPhone has just the solution for today’s picture takers.
“Live Photos records what happens 1.5 seconds before and after you take a picture. What you get is more than a great photo — but a moment captured with movement and sound. You take a Live Photo just like you do a traditional photo.”21
Only on reading this for the second time does it occur to me: how can the telephone start filming 1.5 seconds before I take the picture? Then it dawns on me: the camera is recording constantly. Whether a person triggers it or not is entirely irrelevant.
“Sharing is fun.”22
If you share a cookie, everyone gets a piece. If we are lucky, we learn as children to overcome our selfishness and to value sharing a joint experience.
If you share content with other users in a social network, it is often about having others marvel at your cookie. In fact, you are sharing your content and a great deal more with the operators of the social network.
See: General Terms and Conditions, Meta-Data
“Reset to your original at any time.”23
Photography is characterized by the fact that film or photographic paper once exposed contains information that cannot be erased. This process is irreversible.
The situation is quite different when it comes to digital photography. If light falls onto the chip of a camera, initially nothing at all happens. Nothing is altered. The information of the light is registered only when the camera is turned on. In this case, a charge is created by the photons that is proportional amount of light available. This is then translated by a corresponding transducer to information on brightness and stored. While exposure takes place at the same moment, the transport of the charges per pixel takes place line by line. In this way, our momentary image has become a kind of linear text that only consists of individual numerals. These can of course be intentionally changed. Or not even saved at all. The act is fully reversible.
Worker = Consumer
Consumer = User = Product
Henry Ford was the first to discover his workers as consumers of his own products. He lowered work time and increased wages so they had more time and money to consume. At the same time he lowered the price of the cars he produced. This was welcomed by the unions, but at the same time at the expense of a control of traditional lifestyles. All the same, jobs at his factories were in high demand.24
Today, we have a huge selection of fantastic platforms to save and exchange digital images and data and to network with other users and bots. All for free, and it’s all very easy. You don’t need to know anything. It‘s all self-explanatory. But you do have to accept the General Terms and Conditions.
But as it turns out, we do have to pay, with our content and our metadata. This might not seem a great deal to the individual. “Who cares about my boring life?,” is the standard answer to concerns about the careless sharing of the most intimate data.
It seems as if the Fordist combination of producer and consumer has now been expanded to include the product itself.25
(accessed on 5 July 2017) ↩︎
Andrea Trinkwalder, “Bildschön durch KI”, in c’t. no. 11, 2017, 76 pp ↩︎
Jean Baudrillard, “The Art of Disappearance,” in Jean Baudrillard, Art and Artefact, ed. Nicholas Zurbrugg (London 1997) ↩︎
(accessed on 14 June 2017) ↩︎
Michael Schmidt/Einar Schleef: Waffenruhe, Berlin 1987 ↩︎
(accessed on 16 June 2017) ↩︎
(accessed on 12 May 2017) ↩︎
This would be the exaggeration of Timm Rautert’s statement: “There is no such thing as digital photography.”, in Zwischentöne (2015), Deutschlandfunk, 15 November 2015, 13:30 until 15:00 (editor: Michael Langer) ↩︎
Christiane Rösinger: „Was jetzt kommt“, auf: Lieder ohne Leiden, Staatsakt 2017, Nr. 6 ↩︎
(accessed on 6 June 2017) ↩︎
(accessed on 18 June 2017) ↩︎
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York 1981), p. 80 ↩︎
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (London 1922), 29 ↩︎
Anton Zeilinger, https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Es-stellt-sich-letztlich-heraus-dass-Information-ein-wesentlicher-Grundbaustein-der-Welt-ist-3448658.html?view=print
(accessed on 16 June 2017) ↩︎
(accessed on 12 May 2017) ↩︎
(accessed on 16 June 2017) ↩︎
(accessed on 15 June 2017) ↩︎
(accessed on 15 June 2017) ↩︎