Techwit: This just in: Seein' ain't believin'

Posted: Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Remember when seeing was believing? When in doubt we'd say, "show me." Almost always, a picture was proof enough. But these days there's so much high-tech trickery going on it's hard to know what you're looking at.

Techwit By Jason Ohler

Pictures have never been completely honest. Just by using the right camera angle you could make Danny DeVito look tall and svelte. And before computers came along there were people who could use razors and air brushing to create a realistic picture of a pregnant, two-headed Elvis talking to aliens. This took real talent. But these days anyone can do this stuff. Even me, who couldn't create a recognizable stick figure before computers.

Let me give you a real life example about how weird this has become. If you'd visited my Web site years ago you would have seen a picture of me smiling brightly into the camera with my hands at my sides (www.jasonhler.com/pictureslie). Little did you know that in the original photograph my left hand was actually jammed into my pants pocket, making me look entirely unfit for the World Wide Web. Using my computers' digital retouching program, I copied, inverted and pasted my "good arm" on top of my "bad arm," did a bit of digital doctoring, and presto - there I was with both my hands neatly at my sides. While I was at it I took care of a few spots on my rock-washed jeans where it looked like I'd wet my pants. No sense needlessly embarrassing myself in cyberspace.

The process I used to go from sloppy to preppy took about 20 minutes. Talent? Who needs talent? It helps, but all you really need is enough patience to keep at it until you get it right.

I initially put the "new digital me" on the Web to stimulate discussion among my students. We debated questions like, was I being rude? Should there be a number in the lower right hand corner of every picture indicating how much it had been changed? Should we be able to click on any picture and see the original? And as long as we can make ourselves look thin and tanned, can we stop exercising and stay indoors?

But then I got used to the picture. Dang, that fake arm looked good. I left it up for awhile until my conscience got the better of me.

Is all this digital wizardry bad? Who knows? But it sure is fun - and empowering. I know plenty of people who have gone to town on their resumé pictures, erasing blemishes and ironing out unsightly wrinkles. Some even stretched their pictures so they'd look a little taller and a few pounds lighter. When I questioned them they said, "Hey, it's my picture!" True enough. After all, we don't have a problem with makeup, and what's digital alteration but a kind of makeup on steroids?

Just think of the potential. You can fill in a bald spot, get that facelift that's been out of your price range, or add a little muscle mass where it used to be before all that beer got the better of you. It's all very easy to rationalize because you really could make these changes if you really felt like it, right? It's just more convenient and cost-effective to go virtual.

But life could get dicey if you meet someone in RL (Real Life) you initially encountered in VR (Virtual Reality) who assumed from your picture that you were much younger (MY) and better toned (BT). What if they accuse you of misrepresenting yourself? Simple: accuse them of being superficial. After all, it's not your digital image that's important, it's who you are inside, even in cyberspace, right?

Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast and can be reached at jason@jasonohler.com. © 2002 Jason Ohler.



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