Image Ethics in the Digital Age by Larry Gross, John Stuart Katz, and Jay Ruby

If a picture of Condoleezza Rice’s scowl catches your eye on a news site, just right-click and “Save As” … and then she’s yours. If you’d like to pose her spite next to the “hilarious” glee of the cast of Saved by the Bell, select her figure using the outline tool in PhotoShop, then click “Create New Layer” and simply nudge her over with your mouse. Alternately, if you’d like to read a New York Times article on her in bright blue 24 point Comic Sans font, just copy the piece to Word and …

There’s something extraordinarily tempting about such digitalia convenience — computers and the internet and digital media have made toy-tasks of all the copying and altering and personalizing we’ve been doing for so long with much messier blank tapes, VCR’s, Xerox machines, scissors and tape. The opportunities are of course immense and unprecedented, but the same immediacy of creation and dissemination also introduces problematics all its own.

Every picture in any publication runs through Photoshop; the same copy and paste could insert more corpses to a war image or multiply the size of a crowd at a public event — either to a photograph or video — for more dramatic effect. Simply because it’s so easy to do and so difficult to catch, we might not have any idea. This deep control that software gives us over images also softens our trust that they represent something genuine.

Image Ethics in the Digital Age brings together fifteen essays on the tangled issues that the massive digital upgrade presents us, ranging from fairly legal or technical questions of how image copyright can work in an online, JPEG-formatted world, to more broadly journalistic matters that have become re-amplified by the expanding reach of digital media. Essays go into exhaustive depth discussing just what photo touch-ups are permissible for journalism or whether nature documentaries should carry disclaimers when taking such liberties as erasing excessive blood to make a death scene more family-palatable. But they also cover privacy issues, celebrity gay outing (which one piece cold-heartedly endorses), and “moral copyright,” whether indigenous cultures can object to “derogatory treatment” of their images. The actual ones and zeros aren’t the only subject here.

Some of these concerns are not so much radically new as they are radically magnified existing problems, “old wine in new bottles,” as the editors admit. After all, we’ve inhabited a heavily mechanized and electronic world for ages by now, having had the “Age of Reproduction” by the early decades of the twentieth century, long before the “revolution” of this “Digital Age.” The recent hoaxes showing John Kerry speaking with Jane Fonda at a 1970s protest, for instance, and the more damaging ones purporting to show British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners could have been made a hundred years ago using traditional darkroom techniques or, in the Iraq case — or in any case at all — merely by shooting a staged event. As the afterward puts it, we’ve already long accepted photography and film as merely “real enough” for most purposes.

But it’s the sudden and extraordinary ease of being able to copy and transform digital files that’s brought many well-established issues of authenticity or copyright out of a theoretical bin and into an everyday context. Questions of fair use — what owning one copy of a work allows you to do with it in terms of duplication or public showing — suddenly matter to anyone trying to reconcile creative ownership with the immense allure of grabbing any electronic media you want for free.

Sheldon Halpern’s essay makes the astute point that it’s “difficult to find moral imperatives” against downloading bootlegged music or copying a movie you already own for a friend. He quotes a scholar who puts it thus: “One knows that one is doing something wrong when one tries to sneak into a neighbor’s house, [but] it may not seem so obviously wrong to tape a musical recording or duplicate a computer program that is already in hand. … An act of copying seems to harm no one. There is no perceptible loss … not even a psychological sensation of trespass.”

As artists are using more and more segments of existing media as content for their own work, they’re running into serious legal trouble. You can copy a passage out of this written review for the sake of criticism or commentary, but you can’t legally take anything — not a second nor a recognizable square inch — from of an image or video for use in visual commentary, at least without permission and, usually, a fee.

There are of course strong reasons for awarding a creator legal control over their work, but the balance between this right and the social interests served by criticism seems heavily lop-sided in the visual realm. Congress recently granted copyright exclusivity to the creator for his or her life plus seventy years, or a straight ninety-five years for a corporation, which doesn’t allow much play with images while they’re still contemporary. In other words, if you wanted to make a strongly critical documentary on, say, a television show and illustrate it with video clips, even brief ones, you’d either need the show’s permission, which might heavily restrict what you’re allowed to say about the show, or you’d have to wait a century before you had free use of what everyone sees each night.

In a chapter entitled, “Fair Use and the Visual Arts,” Stephen Weil makes a carefully posed case that “because visual images cannot be summarized, paraphrased, described, or even quoted from” as written works can be, they should have “a distinct and separate fair use regime of their own,” something leaving more room to work with images for critical or educational use.

As consequential as these questions are, it’s a shame that such severely scholarly writing makes for an excruciatingly dull time. While an outline of their arguments carries considerable weight, actually reading Image Ethics fails to leave any impression. The unforgivingly dense prose literally presses the reader into a headache. See how this sentence settles in your system: “Characterized at the level of form by compositional unity and at the level of meaning or effect by narrative potency and communicative clarity, the distinction of these images, Comstock asserts, is further bulwarked by their pedigree and the status of their source[.]” You just don’t know where you’re footing is by the end of such horrendous sentences. And the book’s full of similarly underwhelming language, dry precisions of syntax that seem better fit for programming a database, such as “the photograph’s indexical relationship to its referent,” than with conveying any direct feel for the issue at hand.

And these aesthetic criticisms of Image Ethics matter. They matter because intelligent, well-argued ideas not only lose personal thrust when communicated in such rigid manners, but also because the lack of compelling sensibility causes the authors to misgauge several phenomenons. Passages describe the “cultural space” of web cams, the “JenniCam”s and the “Dude Dorms,” without mentioning how deeply dorky they are. A chapter on daytime talk shows approaches these “emotionally excessive” programs in terms of class exploitation without a hint of recognizing that they’re also funny and garishly hypnotizing — a very low-camp amusement, but you miss their function entirely without allowing this facet.

If you’ve ever wished that popular media wasn’t so rushed into quick glosses or so permanently bound to ratings and advertisements, Image Ethics in the Digital Age might give you a hint of what can happen when a work pays no mind at all to sensation. If only the editors had a better understanding of why flash and style grab our attention, they might have been better able to give us a more meaningful commentary on media.