Image Primacy

So two guys attacked a church in France today, beheading a priest before being shot by police. That alone seems almost normal at the moment. But there is one thing that has become another part of the normal routine that keeps sparking my interest. According to some sources, the attackers forced the priest to kneel down and the filmed his decapitation. So it seems just a matter of hours, before this material is available in some dark corners of the Internet.

Some time ago, it seemed as if the measurement for the success of a terrorist attack was the body count, the number of people killed (and to a lesser extend the number of those wounded).  Maybe that is still somewhat the case – and the number of people killed and wounded has definitely a clear relationship to the number of front pages filled -, but to me there seems to be a shift.

I know, it is more complicated than that still, the calculation goes like this:

Amount of Fucks

Today, the measurement for the success of a terrorist attack seems to come mostly from the images it produces. Otherwise two dead terrorists for one dead priest would not sound all that successful.

But images become more and more important and therefore more and more powerful. It is just a matter of time, when the first terror attacks are streamed live. So far this has only happened in the aftermath of these events, but tools like Facebook Live or Periscope make it seem to be the logical next step. I guess the war in Syria would already be streamed live, if the mobile Internet in this war torn nation would just not be that bad.

But for me the question goes deeper. If it is true that images become the deciding factor (even though I make the argument here that they are, of course I can not be sure) – So if this is true, could we argue that  this is then  something we could call “image primacy”? With this I mean that people are not killed to be killed, but rather they are killed to produce images and therefore produce “news”. Otherwise, why bother killing a 86 year old priest? Something I have already argued for, when collecting images taken by snipers, while killing their victims. The victim does not seem to be important anymore, but the image itself seems to matter. That way it does make perfect sense to kill a priest inside a beautiful old church. It is the perfect setting to produce images that stand out.

The whole thing makes me sad.

Mass hysteria only works, when it is live – but today everything seems to be live

Looking at the news recently and more precisely, looking at the reaction to the news, it seems as if the world is falling apart. I think that has a lot to do with us being creatures that have evolved to live in communities of maybe 50 individuals. While living in a cave or a straw hut, there might have been on occasion good reason for mass hysteria, but that meant that you or one of your children is been eaten by a bear, right now, right in front of your eyes. Or something of that sort. Live – in the sense of happening right now – meant it was part of your life – right here and right now. Terrible things here and now could have real consequences for us, so becoming hysteric, might in fact be a valid option.

“Elsewhere” on the other hand, was truly elsewhere. And news spread slowly. So if you received news, that someone else, has been eaten elsewhere – even if is was one of you kin – the individual in question had either already survived the attack, or had already been turned into bear poop. So there was little for you to do. Especially little reason for you to be hysteric.

Even with the advent of news – as in newspaper or TV news -, this, for a long time, did not change all that much. If you did open the newspaper while eating breakfast, the news you encountered already happened. What is dubbed by TV stations “evolving story” or “breaking news” is more recent. And things are definitely accelerating.

When the news broke about recent events in Nice, Turkey, Florida or yesterday in Munich, my first reaction was to check Twitter and Periscope. Of course I also check different news sites, but the “promise” the Internet gives that you can be see things unfold live is so intriguing. Plus, once you keep checking Twitter, you realize that most news sites do the same.

But looking at the reaction people show and the tone that shifts from event to event, I come to realize that people just can not handle live news very well. It is like constantly watching a bear mauling one of your close relatives in the next cave. Just that “your relative” is someone you do not know and would not care about, when meeting on the street. The “bear” are mostly random acts of violence that happen outside our media attention all the time. And the “next cave” is a place you have to google to find its exact location. But since, through the magic of the Internet, these events seem to unfold before our eyes, hysteria seems to be the adequate reaction.

And that is very dangerous, since fear has become the most important weapon in today’s conflicts. Fear causes us to overreact. Another of those very old instincts. If you were really afraid when the bear was eating in the next cave, there was little for you to loose. So why not stop acting sensible? Just shit your pants, start yelling, start hitting everything in your path and run as quickly as possible. Maybe you survive this way. But if these bear eating events have seemingly become part of our everyday routine, since the Internet and the news constantly confront us with these events in real time. Shitting your pants, yelling and flailing your arms – in short, loosing your mind -, is not the adequate reaction any more, just instinctive behavior is almost impossible to control.

Maybe the problem is, that Aesop never determined how far away the wolf can be, for you to justifiably still call it.

Artificial Intelligence and Orange Jump Suits

I was searching online for the site, where I found a certain ISIS execution image, since I can not remember – and I forgot to write the link down. It is this one:AI and the Iconic1


Sure, the results were what I have expected and looked like this:AI and the Iconic2

It goes on like this for quite some time. Execution upon execution. But if you look closely, it gets quite interesting and somewhat complex. It does not show the same execution over and over again, rather it shows different, very similar stills. This tells me different things. First of all, whoever shot these videos for ISIS, has been very careful setting them up, so to create an iconic image of the scene. The one still seems enough to tell the whole story. This gets so far, that some media outlets use these images and completely forget to tell the name of the victim. These videos – and the stills from them – have become archetypal. They illustrate “terror” and the details seem almost unimportant.

But then there is the fact that these videos all show “western” victims (I use quotes, since Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto were Japanese). Maybe they show “our” victims. What I mean with that is the fact that I have seen so many videos with men in orange jump suits kneeling on the ground, before being executed, and most of them use a similar composition.

I think there is a feedback loop at play here. Since western media mostly report on western victims, the image search algorithm values these images higher than others. But is it OK? Mmmhhh, I think one could definitely argue against it and call it media bias. Then again, of course members of what we consider our own society are more deeply connected to us, than “strangers”. It is biased, but maybe understandably so. And ISIS gets this as well. This is exactly, why Iraqis, Kurds, Syrians or Libyans are often executed “by the dozen” whereas the execution of a westerner becomes its own feature film. Some of these films that show the execution of westerners, also show the execution of groups of other prisoners – but this happens as a byproduct. I don’t think it should come as a surprise when we realize that ISIS – among many other things – seems to be racist.

But back to the image search. One thing the results do not show is this:


This is an image from the early 2000s that was taken at Guantanamo prison. We almost forget that this is actually what ISIS is referring to, when using these orange jump suits. But maybe they overdid, what they did. OK, I am writing from my own, western, perspective, but to me it seems as if the orange jump suit does not so much represent the atrocities by the West. Rather perception has shifted towards associating this iconic piece of clothing with the atrocities committed by ISIS and Co. I wonder if they realize this. The more they use it, the more they are the ones associated with this icon of injustice.

The same seems to be true, when searching for the term “orange jump suit”.AI and the Iconic4

On the first page, there is almost no mentioning of Guantanamo – there is one image of an Iraqi prisoner threatened by a dog though. “Orange Jump Suit” mostly seems to be connected to the american prison system and – oddly – sexy ladies wearing them. That might have something to do with the TV series “Orange is the New Black”. But there is a link to a further search in relationship to ISIS at the top of the page.

Another somewhat strange example I encountered was a video from 2013, that shows rapper and actor Mos Def (or Yasiin Bey – the name he uses now). In this video he undergoes the routine of force feeding that was used at the time in Guantanamo (maybe it still is) and caused quite some media outrage. It is interesting that to fully undergo this treatment he apparently also had to wear an orange jump suit. Maybe this gives the whole procedure more authenticity, but I find such details quite often slightly absurd.mos defI wonder if it is more or less painful, if you are wearing orange. OK, that is cynical. But I would get the fact, that this is torture, even without him wearing this symbolic piece of clothing.

While thinking about this, I was wondering how clever the algorithm actually is and if it manages to understand the icon in its most basic form. Jihadi

This is what I came up with very briefly. But unfortunately neither Google, nor any other image search site I tried came up with any result.  So maybe AI has still some way to go.



If advertising would work, it would be prohibited

I know that the power of advertising apparently lays in the unconscious manipulation of our minds to guide us towards chose one product over the other. But I am not so much talking about what we call advertising, but what has been classified as propaganda. I would argue that propaganda – at least today – is just a word that is used for your opponents advertising.  That way, advertising and propaganda are pretty much the same.

But propaganda is treated as if it works perfectly. As if it in itself is dangerous. Like the idea of crack cocaine. Once you use it, just once, you are hooked and lost forever. Therefore access to it has to be prevented.

But I don’t think that this is the right approach. Especially not today, when everything that is prohibited can still be found somewhere hiding in the Web.

I am not saying we should let companies do whatever they want, since – as I am arguing – advertising does not really work. Markets are never going to regulate themselves and if tobacco companies, for decades advertise their products as pure lifestyle objects without any negative side effects, it is quite difficult for a society to compete with these billion dollar marketing budgets. Therefore I do believe that certain forms of advertising ought to be restricted.

But looking at islamist propaganda, at first one can be astonished by the sheer amount of material that pours out of Syria or Afghanistan. Upon closer inspection though, it is easy to realize that the material that is flooding Twitter, Telegram or Youtube is mostly copies. From what I have seen so far, I would guess that rarely more than ten new videos are posted each day. And most of these videos are not the highly edited and scripted videos, that are extremely professional looking . But it is the way these videos are shared, that makes the amount appear much bigger. Since many sites take the videos down as soon as someone flags them, they are uploaded on as many sites as possible. Quite often in multiple versions with different names. That can be confusing and overwhelming.

Sure, if this outpour is compared to the release of government funded PSA videos that try to inform young people of the dangers of groups like ISIS, ten videos a day is a lot. But if you look at the 24hour new circle and the general media production in the West, ten videos a day is nothing. I think limiting access to this material gives it a broader scope than it would otherwise have. It become special and interesting. Maybe we should let it drown in the stream of videos and photos that appear on the internet with little to no effect.


The opposite of the artistic aura

Today’s art world is out of control. Everything can be – and is – declared art. Much of this art derives its aura merely from the claim of established artists, that a certain piece of junk is their creation and therefore to be considered art. If on the surface of the piece, the work is indistinguishable from a pile of trash, at least the “finger of the artist” has touched the work and therefore it gave the work its artistic aura. Pretty much the same as with corporate brands like Nike, Adidas or as a matter of fact with relics.

So I was very amused, when earlier today I read about a lawsuit that has been filed against painter Peter Doig. I am not going to go to deep into the details – please look it up yourself -, but apparently someone claims to own a painting Peter Doig painted, when he was just 16 or 17. The funny thing is that Doig denies that the painting is his. Now a court has ordered the painter to prove that the painting isn’t his. Let’s put away the fact that proving that you did not do something positively is challenging even at the philosophical level, and focus more on the aura of the work.

Doig (who’s painting sell for gazillions) is ordered by the court to grant a certain work its aura, so that this aura emanates from the shitty painting and therefore the work becomes more expensive.

I think this whole story is amazingly funny, since it tells so much about what is wrong with the art world.

Just a few things:

  • some art is so fuckingly expensive, that even the shittiest, most benign “work” could cost millions
  • because of that, many artist declare the most benign shit “work”
  • it is not about content or quality, just about names and provinience
  • and the audience astonishingly takes that shit