Reality Bytes: Welcome to Our Photoshopped Future

The Confusion Is Back and It's Worse Than Ever

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Forgive my bluntness, but last week a friend of mine, a famous media-world grandee, was rather excited about Lindsay Lohan's crotch. Specifically, a paparazzi shot of her crotch that was getting passed around the internet and posted and linked to by various blogs. Ms. Lohan, you see, recently disembarked from a boat on a windy day, and one particular gust created a Marilyn-Monroe-on-the-sidewalk-grate effect. Only, unlike Marilyn, Lindsay wasn't wearing any underwear.
Lindsay Lohan
Lindsay Lohan Credit: AP

Except, actually, she was.

I had the sad and peculiar duty of informing my friend that he'd missed the next step in this blogosphere "story": that the crotch was, cruelly, counterfeit. The original photo (with Lohan clearly wearing underwear), from which the X-rated version had been doctored, surfaced eventually on the web -- but by then my friend had moved on. (He seemed a bit crestfallen to learn that Lohan's lady bits were actually Photoshop bytes.)

Before the advent of mass media, information flow, of course, was a confusing, piecemeal, largely word-of-mouth stutter. A game of telephone, if you will.

Then, in the brief glory days of mass media -- when, for instance, the evening news was dominant and Walter Cronkite kept us all more or less on the same page -- the static on the line cleared up a bit.

But now, increasingly, we're back to the stutter, the static -- and not only because of the atomization of media, and the multiple, opposing worldviews that emanate from major, minor and micro news sources, from Katie Couric to blogs. The confusion is back and, in some ways, worse than ever thanks to pervasive digital technologies that, ironically, were supposed to make us all smarter, more knowledgeable, better informed. Digital, we think, means "sharper"; instead, everything's just gotten way more fuzzy.

CNN's Lou Dobbs has made a lot of noise lately about how hackers can easily compromise electronic voting machines (since 80% of voters this November will be casting electronic ballots, there soon won't even be any hanging chads to dicker over when totals skew suspiciously). But the thing is, there's increasingly no paper trail for anything anymore, as more and more of the media world goes pure-play digital.

Of course, we've spent the last few years collectively tuning our bullshit detectors; the likes of Jayson Blair and James Frey have trained us to constantly question written "reality." But now the shadiness increasingly bleeds over into the visual realm. You can't trust what you read or see. Life is just one big Photoshop job.

Reuters recently took a lot of heat because its photographer Adnan Hajj used digital "cloning" techniques to make smoke plumes from an Israeli air raid on Beirut look extra thick (i.e., extra dramatic). He was caught because he was super obvious about it -- just like the enterprising flacks at CBS who recently altered a publicity shot of Couric to make her look 20 pounds thinner.

Everybody acted like those were big, blatant, unforgivable digital lies. But actually, they're more or less run-of-the-mill. Scan any magazine rack, and what you'll mostly see is lies: celebrities and noncelebrities made to look how they don't actually look in real life.

Digital lying, when done obviously, flat-footedly, used to be a big deal -- like when Time famously doctored a 1994 cover photo to darken O.J. Simpson's skin (totally awkward, because Newsweek ran the same photo that same week undarkened).

It used to be costly (literally) to lie like that. Airbrushing was a craft, and electronic retouching was something magazines undertook only at great expense. Scitex was one of the companies that pioneered digital retouching technologies; in the '80s and '90s, "Can we Scitex that?" became an increasingly common refrain in art directors' offices. It made the bean counters cringe.

It's telling that Scitex is now HP Scitex -- a division of Hewlett-Packard, which this spring introduced a line of consumer-level cameras with a very of-the-moment feature. Take a picture with the $150 HP Photosmart M527, then apply the "slimming" effect, and you don't even have to hand off the image to another machine (your Mac or PC) to make your subject look thin enough to, say, host the "CBS Evening News."

Those HP cameras, really, are metaphors for all of our increasingly shady, highly questionable digital lives.

The lying is now not only cheap and ubiquitous; it's built right in.

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