Like pretty much everyone in the developed world, I like to find things on the internet. The act of discovery is thrilling, and we like to think, informative (though one must wonder how to quantify the intellectual value of another cat video). For the artist, the web offers an inconceivably large corpus of inspiration, visual or otherwise.
When I find an image which appeals to me, I frequently copy it onto my local computer, building a scrapbook of inspiration (or provocation). Some people like to use services like Pinterest to collate these things, but I am old school, and prefer to keep my data on spinning hard-disk platters under my control. As a result, I have collected hundreds of images over the years, mainly sitting in a single unordered directory.
These images lie dormant, just 1s and 0s amongst millions of others. Every now and then I flick through them, looking for a spark. Often I can no longer remember when or why (of from where) I copied them.
I decided to present them back to myself, in an algorithmic manner, to see what they might inspire in a new context. Every day, at 8:31am, a picture is selected at random and posted onto my Twitter timeline. I have no interaction with this process, the images just appear, as if from me, at the same time each day.
A tiny act of self cyborg-ification.
At some point in the past, I selected these images. Each one represents an aesthetic choice made by a historical version of myself. And now they are being presented back to me, algorithmically, for fresh appraisal.
Kind of like a visual version of Oblique Strategies.
As I upgrade my hardware, I dutifully copy these images from one place to another. During this transfer, the files themselves are re-created on a new disk, entirely new digital records which perfectly replicate their parent. The idea of the ‘original’ image ceases to make sense – you can’t point to a specific copy of the data and claim it is any more authentic than any other.
However, in theory, each image has the potential to retain it’s provenance and history. Many cameras record EXIF data, which can be used to store technical details (the camera model and settings), information about the creator (artist name, copyright) and the circumstances of creation (time taken, GPS coordinates). These data are ideally created when the image is taken, and then augmented as the image makes it’s way out into the world.
I wondered what history had been recorded in my directory of collected images and whether this could be brought to the surface. Generally this data refers to the act of creation, but in theory, the act of sharing the photo could also be recorded inside the image. I could leave my mark, and perhaps watch it move around the network, like some sort of ‘message in a bottle’.
This was an exciting proposition, until I actually ran few tests. It transpires that EXIF data can be stripped, and Twitter is one of the worst offenders.
Consider these two seemingly identical images of Alan Moore:
First, the ‘original’ which I copied from the web.
It contains all sorts of information:
ExifTool Version Number : 9.90 File Name : alan-viking.jpg MIME Type : image/jpeg JFIF Version : 1.01 Exif Byte Order : Little-endian (Intel, II) Image Description : SAMSUNG Make : SAMSUNG Camera Model Name : GT-I9000 Orientation : Horizontal (normal) X Resolution : 72 Y Resolution : 72 Resolution Unit : inches Software : fw 49.01 prm 49.103 Modify Date : 2015:01:21 15:50:35 Y Cb Cr Positioning : Centered Exposure Time : 1/26 F Number : 2.6 Exposure Program : Program AE ISO : 100 Exif Version : 0220 Date/Time Original : 2015:01:21 15:50:35 Create Date : 2015:01:21 15:50:35 Components Configuration : Y, Cb, Cr, - Shutter Speed Value : 1/26 Aperture Value : 2.6 Brightness Value : 1.54 Exposure Compensation : 0 Max Aperture Value : 2.6 Metering Mode : Center-weighted average Light Source : Unknown Flash : Off, Did not fire Focal Length : 3.5 mm Warning : [minor] Unrecognized MakerNotes Flashpix Version : 0100 Color Space : sRGB Exif Image Width : 640 Exif Image Height : 480 Interoperability Index : R98 - DCF basic file (sRGB) Interoperability Version : 0100 Sensing Method : One-chip color area File Source : Digital Camera Scene Type : Directly photographed Custom Rendered : Normal Exposure Mode : Auto White Balance : Auto Digital Zoom Ratio : undef Focal Length In 35mm Format : 0 mm Scene Capture Type : Standard Contrast : Normal Saturation : Normal Sharpness : Normal GPS Version ID : 18.104.22.168 GPS Latitude Ref : North GPS Longitude Ref : East GPS Altitude Ref : Above Sea Level Compression : JPEG (old-style) Thumbnail Offset : 1316 Thumbnail Length : 9350 Image Width : 480 Image Height : 640 Encoding Process : Baseline DCT, Huffman coding Bits Per Sample : 8 Color Components : 3 Y Cb Cr Sub Sampling : YCbCr4:4:4 (1 1) Aperture : 2.6 GPS Altitude : 0 m Above Sea Level GPS Latitude : 0 deg 0' 0.00" N GPS Longitude : 0 deg 0' 0.00" E GPS Position : 0 deg 0' 0.00" N, 0 deg 0' 0.00" E Image Size : 480x640 Megapixels : 0.307 Shutter Speed : 1/26 Thumbnail Image : (Binary data 9350 bytes, use -b option to extract) Focal Length : 3.5 mm Light Value : 7.5
Now compare it to this photo, which has been passed through Twitter:
ExifTool Version Number : 9.90 File Name : CDHLzOyW8AEGvpx.jpg MIME Type : image/jpeg JFIF Version : 1.01 Resolution Unit : None X Resolution : 1 Y Resolution : 1 Image Width : 480 Image Height : 640 Encoding Process : Baseline DCT, Huffman coding Bits Per Sample : 8 Color Components : 3 Y Cb Cr Sub Sampling : YCbCr4:2:0 (2 2) Image Size : 480x640 Megapixels : 0.307
The image you see on Twitter no longer contains a single trace of information related to it’s creation. The image has been reborn as an anonymous, amnesiac clone of the original.
The act of ‘sharing’ has stripped it of it’s identity.
Sure, there are services like TinEye which offer to find the history of online images. However, they are not perfect, particularly for images on low traffic sites.
Here Tineye has identified the first citation of this image as coming from a social media aggregation site. Whereas I actually lifted it from here.
In an attempt to thwart this algo-revisionism, I am publishing some of the EXIF data in the text of the tweet. There’s not room for much, but where possible I publish details of when it was created, and by whom along with a record of the software used to manipulate it.
Unfortunately, many of the images have already been through an anonymisation process before I came across them. There is no record of their origin, and their future is stored in proprietary systems, beyond scrutiny.
Whilst we worry about networked systems recording ever more data about us, perhaps we should also consider the data which is being selectively ignored, and why.