None of Your Photos Are Real

Tools like Google’s Pixel 8 AI photo editor are ushering in a deepening distrust of everything we see. Welcome to our new counterfeit reality.

GOOGLE’S PITCH FOR the AI features in the new Pixel 8 phone reads like a promise: “do more, effortlessly.” And who can blame them? I certainly don’t. Not in this shitstorm of a year. Have you seen the news? Gone outside? Wondered why groceries cost an entire paycheck? I keep telling myself that the first waves of the Covid-19 pandemic are to blame, the way it crunched time and reordered our internal wiring and social cues, how it fed a kind of political narcissism and further eroded American politics, but it’s hard to pinpoint the genesis of what feels like collective unease and exhaustion. All I know is everything does seem like more work than it used to, and a pledge to accomplish more with less effort is impossible to ignore.

There’s a trade-off, of course. That’s how the covenant goes—in exchange for seamless living, our technologies require a token in return. Our faces. Our data. Our selves. The AI-enabled photo editing on Google’s latest smartphone, though, exacts a different price. It offers an easy approach to all that you do, capture, and create, but its tariff is authenticity.

As smartphones go, this integration of AI signals a new era, one created with tech that is intuitive to the kind of ferocious simulation the next generation is being engineered around, where a picture is no longer worth a thousand words but a thousand tiny fictions. If our devices are meant to act as an extension of who we are, gizmos like the Pixel 8 are tools to help create the reality we want, or escape the one we don’t like.

The phone’s capabilities allow users to alter a photo to their exact wishes. Its AI software is able to scrub an unwarranted photo-bomber, or expertly distort size, color, and placement with the tap of a few buttons. The suite of features is available on the Google Photos app (accessible on both Android and iPhone devices), making it easier to tailor reality however you see fit.

“Think of it as a simpler version of Photoshop that requires almost zero photo editing experience,” WIRED’s Julian Chokkattu wrote in a review of the phone. “These new additions feel like the future of mobile imaging, where we’re cutting away the things we don’t like in our images and videos, or completely changing the time of day to get the right sky. It’s amazing but also disconcerting. Maybe an overcast day is fine, you know?”

This is part of the trade-off. Nothing is given freely. In our pursuit of perfection, of always wanting to present the most optimal self, it can feel like AI is asking for the very thing we shouldn’t so quickly give over: the substance of our lived realities.

But there is also a benefit in how AI is changing our relationship to the images around us, says Tom Ashe, chair of the digital photography program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. “Putting these tools into our phones does further democratize the ability for people to manufacture the image they want, instead of settling for what they were shown in the original exposure. This does feel like an evolution,” he says. The advantage of what AI instills, Ashe adds, is a “healthy skepticism to our idea of the photograph as a document of objective truth.”

AT SOME POINT in our very recent haste to the future, camera phone features became the prime selling point for many consumers hooked on the narcotic of social media, a contract that promised a taste of micro-fame in exchange for nonstop self-presentation. Marketing their version of an ideal lifestyle—as so many influencers rushed to do, cashing in on brand deals along the way—required looking your best. For many people, that started with the camera technology in their phone.

As the user base of Instagram and Snapchat increased in the mid-2010s, image-centric apps introduced an aesthetic of socializing based on visual presentation. Everyone, even those who would never admit it, wanted to be seen and liked and shared across feeds. The widespread use of filters became shorthand for a perverse form of visual automation. FaceTune grew in popularity, and before long VSCO Girl and Instagram Face were defining archetypes of a millennial generation who didn’t know how to unplug, glued to the reflection of their screens.

In our pursuit of perfection, it can feel like AI is asking for the very thing we shouldn’t so quickly give over: the substance of our lived realities.

I was among the horde, fluent in the modernism of thirst traps, desirous to be seen even when I didn’t fully understand why. There was a rush to achieve an idealized look because it was, and remains in part, the currency of digital exchange. With every click of my iPhone, I perfected my angles. We all understood: Beauty was capital, and everyone wanted to be rich.

The aesthetics of online socializing reaffirmed old racial imbalances around beauty but also opened up a space for women of color, especially, to have representational agency, says Derek Conrad Murray, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who specializes in the history of art and visual culture. “Self-representation and social media enabled many women of color to challenge culture industries that prop up beauty standards that have traditionally ignored and demeaned them,” he says.

This is also the remarkable promise of AI—it shifts the axis on which objective truth is measured. It has the power to challenge how we view images and the people in them, forcing us to better question one person’s version of reality and our own in return. It is likely that devices like the Pixel 8 will increase the flow of counterfeit images into a society hooked on optimization, polluting the pathways of visual communication and making louder the already-rampant misinformation that permeates our digital meeting grounds. But what’s happening now, Murray says, has happened for as long as photography has been used to record the realities that color our world.

“With the advent of digital image manipulation, a panic emerged that photography was dead. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Murray says. “The medium was always manipulated, and often utilized to create elaborate deceptions. Now we’re in a moment where the photograph has an infinite mutability.”

In our rush to fine-tune and manipulate, to make things easier, generative AI suggests a challenge: Embrace distortion. Live in the mutability of photographic deception, but remain diligent, for the future is a playground of constant knowing and unknowing, unraveling and remaking.

Did you find this useful?

Share now to someone who will appreciate this.

You may also like: