Manipulating Social Realities With Technology

One stance is that technology is neither inherently good or bad, it’s what we do with it, as humans with the ability to choose and judge and reflect our own cultural norms, that’s where the morality comes in. Of course, there are any number of agents along the way to actual use. Those that package a technology in a way that instructs in its usage may persaude or encourage behaviors that are not “approved” of. We see the media blaming cell phones, texting, the Internet whenever possible – it’s a better headline than to blame a gun, or a parent, or a person. Where does the accountability lie?

An emerging special case is the set of technologies that we can use to misrepresent reality to others. The first that caught my eye (back in 2004) was SoundCover (company website is now defunct, but story is here), software that would play fake background noises over your mobile phone, to add credence to an excuse (i.e., “I’m stuck in traffic.”). A more recent mobile twist is the popularity dialer that will automatically call you at pre-arranged times so you can look popular, or fake an exit from a bad date, or whatever. Hacking social norms and faking reality through technology.

Those are both sort of high-schoolish in concept and implementation, but the super-geekery (and with it, super-powers) come in a couple of tools for digital photography. HP has some software built into their digital cameras that automatically slims the subjects of the photo, while some software in development in Israel will automatically beautify women’s faces. Tourist Remover carries less cultural baggage and lets you get the picture you never really got, by taking a few pictures of the same scene and putting together a composite without all those other pesky people.

HP’s entry is the most surprising, for a rather cautious organization, it seems pretty brazen. Every week is another indicator of our culture’s poor health (X-rays don’t work as well because people are too fat, toilet seats are being redesigned for fatter butts, etc. etc.), and of course our body image standard doesn’t change in the same direction. Is this technology for vanity? Or worse? Or is it any better than correcting red-eye? Or removing a blemish in Photoshop? Where do we cross the line from correcting photography to faking reality, and when is that line-crossing a problem?

[Thanks, JZC, for the HP tip]


About Steve