Friday, July 5, 2019

The Epistemology of Global Knowledge

A friend of mine recently completed a project, a documentary film about how the US faked the moon landings. Essentially, he and a friend (not me) went around recruiting people to be "interviewed" about their role in faking the moon landings, wound up with a lot of hours of awesome footage, and cut it together a documentary that is much better than the rot pulled together by the weirdos.

I believe that the USA's space program did drop some dudes on the moon, it happens.

It is tempting to say that I believe this because I am rational, and have thought through what would be required otherwise. Now, I have thought that through, and do understand what would be required to have faked the moon landings, and I find the idea ridiculous. But that's not why I believe we landed on the moon. My belief predates my rational analysis, by decades. I believe we put guys on the moon, because my dad told me we did.

I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real, too. I have conducted a similar rational exercise, but again, my belief came before my analysis. Essentially, I was raised to believe that burning fossil fuels is a rotten idea, and I was therefore primed when Al Gore said some stuff I still don't really understand about carbon dioxide.

If we rewind a few thousand years, and imagine that world, we can guess pretty reliably that in those days almost everything anybody knew was local knowledge. We knew about things our relatives did, experienced, and needed. We knew a local history. Probably also, we knew some mystical things, things about Gods and Demons, and whatnot.

There simply isn't any reason for a tailless plains ape to know a damned thing about the antics of similar apes 1000 miles away, and indeed as far as we can tell baboons continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance about distant baboons. There does not seem to be any obvious cognitive machinery in place for handling things like Moon Landings, Donald Trump, Brexit, and Climate Change. We are, it strikes me as likely, re-tasking some other mental systems when we imagine we're understanding this kind of thing.

Your experience is maybe different from mine, but I find as I examine myself that in every case my belief in some piece of "remote" knowledge of this sort precedes my rationalization. I'd like to imagine that I don't think vaccines cause autism for rational reasons, say. After all, I say to myself, I don't trust pharmaceutical companies one bit. Surely it was logic, pure reason, that changed my mind. But I was raised to believe that sacrificing oneself for the greater good is a virtue (one of the great virtues) and vaccines are, ultimately, about accepting a small risk in exchange for the greater good. I suspect that my belief in the virtue of vaccines simply outweighs my distrust of industry.

What, you are probably asking, has this to do with photography? What desperate thread will this idiot grasp, to connect these ideas to photographs?

Knowledge of faraway things is intimately tied to mass media. Prior to the newspaper, we learned about the happenings faraway literally by way of some guy walking to our town with a lute and then singing us a song about the faraway happenings. The newspaper allowed at least the ideas to come along in a more wholesale fashion, and when decorated with drawings gave us some visual anchor.

The photograph, and shortly after the methods for mass printing of same, gave us direct, visceral, access to faraway events, places, people. The invention of the photograph, it seems to me, more or less exactly aligns with the moment in history when humans began en masse to seriously grapple with believing in, and understanding, faraway events, people, places. I think it has been argued by wiser heads than mine that this is a causal relationship.

I am fond of rattling on about "the index" and the truth claims of photography, and how the photograph captures a kind of truth. But perhaps I have it all wrong. Maybe the point is that the photograph, whether faked or not, gives us visceral access to things we already want to believe, or to disbelieve.

Certainly there are photographs and video which, to the uninitiated, are just blurry messes which signify nothing but which, to the initiated, clearly show either a police officer using excessive force on a helpless victim, or a police officer justifiably defending himself from a violent attack, depending on which way your politics lean. The indexing properties of the photograph appear to be more or less irrelevant here.

People like me worry about the increasing ease with which photographs can be faked, but perhaps that's all beside the point. Arguably, we have always been able to identify fakes: they're the ones that conflict with our preconceptions, obviously. The ones the support our belief system are not faked. Ok, they might have been 'shopped a little, but essentially they're real. The ones that conflict, well they might be straight out of the camera, but the scene was probably staged, or carefully selected.

We finds ways to accept a fake, and to dismiss a non-fake, almost without effort.

The photograph serves, primarily, as one of many tools we use to justify our beliefs and ideas.

Smart players know this. That piece on the autism-vaccine link is vastly strengthened by adding a photograph of a kid, and a photograph of a hypodermic needly, dripping malevolently. The pictures are factually irrelevant. The child in the stock photo probably is not autistic, the hypodermic is filled with tap water. But the piece punches above its weight, because believers want to believe and the photos give them visceral access to the ideas they desire.

We find things to believe or to dismiss based on a handful of things, none of them rational, none of them are based in reasoning. After the fact, we seek to justify our findings with reason, but a depressingly large percentage of people literally do not know what reasoning looks like. They cannot tell the difference between a correct argument and a jumble of words. The process of rationalization seems to often reduce to checking the conclusion, to see if it is the proper one, and examining the authorship to see if it is one of our guys, or one of theirs. The words in the middle are, often as not, literally not even read (although the busy rationalizer would deny it, they will still fail a basic reading comprehension test on the material.)

There's a whole 'nother issue here, which is where these ideas actually arise from. Certainly from our parents and friends, but ideas do evolve and we do believe things that are different from the ideas of our family and friends. There is another entire stratum, which I think of as the everybody knows layer, consisting of stuff that we think of as common knowledge. It is one of the paths we take to diverge from our parents: Mom thought such and such, but it's 2019 now, and everybody knows...

Photography in particular and mass media in general play a substantial role here, in shaping that corpus of things that everybody knows and this is the basis of propaganda (marketing).

We are susceptible, maybe, to reasoned argument and logic when talking about local events, local people. We can, maybe, accept the argument of another baboon when we're talking about related baboons, and events down at the water hole. Why, Marge could never, you know she does her shopping Wednesday morning, so she couldn't have! might not fall on deaf ears.

For these kinds of remote, global, knowledge where, curiously, reason and logic would appear to be surely the first and most important tools, they are in fact almost worthless. To shift a global idea around the defenses of our preconceptions, the only obvious route is by way of everybody knows.

To persuade, to change, you have to access the everybody knows stratum. Photographs, maybe, should be calculated not to vigorously promote a viewpoint, but rather to gently lay groundwork. A vigorous photograph is simply rejected by those who disagree, and accepted by the choir (who already agree). A subtle photograph, a photograph which takes no particular position, lays groundwork. It's neutral, there is no reason to reject it. 1000 neutral photographs create a little world. 10,000 photographs create, maybe, a ground state that everybody knows.

I think you could probably photoshop the hell out of every single one and it wouldn't matter a bit.


  1. This piece has some of your most insightful and sharpest ideas.

  2. "Our faith in the truth of a photograph rests on the BELIEF that the lens is impartial, and will draw the subject as it is . . . . this faith may be naive and illusory, but it persists. The photographer's vision CONVINCES us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand." John Szarkowski

  3. It's never going to be definitive, is it. An artist makes an artifact or a series of artifacts, and multiple viewers, each with a mind of their own, gets to interpret what that(those) artifact(s) mean. Geez, even when the artifact is written text that uses words with agreed upon definitions, people still get confused.

  4. AMolitor 10000 photographs create a ground state that everyone believes. In other words, I do not know if we ever "know" anything from a photograph or 10,000, but in the stages of belief, the grounding of 10,000 photographs is accepted as a VALUE. The art world rests on these values, not on facts. The science world can give us knowledge, and facts, those that had to be learned over 300 years of science to get an object to the moon and then land on it. Those are proven, known facts. But photographs, I believe, rests on BELIEF and VALUE.

  5. "10,000 photographs create"

    Shit in the cloud nobody in their right mind could give a damn about.

    1. On Flickr, sure. In the NYT it's a different story.

    2. The problem is 10,000. 10,000 anything. If you had said, 'twenty' or 'thirty', it obtains some kind of validity. OTOH historical evidence points to the single, 'iconic' image as most persuasive. The rest is background noise.

    3. Interestingly, that seems to be false. It is certainly received wisdom, but in general we find that the Iconic Image That Changed Public Opinion was shot at the very end of the period of change.

    4. You pulled the "10,000" figure out of someplace the sun don't shine. Best walk it back. :-)

    5. in mah jong, the character or "wan" tiles are literally "10,000", also with that feeling of "really-just-a-whole-heck-of-a-lot"... (stone seal)