Genes and family January 27, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
The New York Times has a piece about how adoptees are using DNA sequencing services to find family. For example, in her 40s, Khrys Vaughan found out that she was adopted and thus not the biological child of her parents. That news sent her into a kind of identity crisis. To help find a resolution, she sent a cheek swab to a genetic service that analyzed the DNA and informed her that she had ancestors stemming from France, Romania, and West Africa. The service also informed her that she had distant cousins in the United States. After approaching her newfound relatives through email and Facebook, Khrys went to visit her cousin Jennifer Grigsby. She was ecstatic with the result:
“Somebody is related to me in this world,” she said. “Somebody out there has my blood. I can look at her and say, ‘This is my family.’ ”
Of course, not every story ends with success. Some people are not interested in meeting their distant cousins, and some seem to be put off by the fact that their hopeful relative was adopted. (Also, some associations could be simply erroneous.)
There are a number of issues that merit comment here. For example, this service could intrude on the privacy of people who gave up children for adoption and would not enjoy having the event revisited later in life. Of course, joining one of these genetic services is voluntary, so that you do not need to join if you are not comfortable with being contacted by strangers regarding your family history. However, anyone who joins such a service will be involving their close relatives as well: An adoptee who has the name of one relative can probably locate more through Google searches and other means.
However, the main point that struck me is the robustness of “blood” relations in today’s world. The Anglo-American family model has not historically been the tightest, with many people not knowing their cousins or second cousins and so on. Also, the Internet has tended to level other important forms of relationship, e.g., consider how Facebook friendship broadens the normal meaning of friendship. In spite of all this, the story of Khrys Vaughan suggests that the notion of blood ties has not lost all of its potency in modern life. Will the increasing availability of DNA services serve to increase interest in family ties?
Flurry of McDonalds stories January 26, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
An article from Business Insider relates how McDonalds has pulled a marketing campaign after it turned sour. The campaign invited Twitter users to Tweet their #McDStories, but it did not specify that the stories should be limited to praise. The result included some off-colour commentary from people about their McDonalds experiences. I will let you pause and savour a couple before we continue.
Beyond the LOLs, it is interesting to note that this is not the first time such a thing has happened to McDonalds. A few years ago, a McDonalds website devoted to customer relations got into a similar situation, with posters asking some off-colour questions and getting apparently serious, marketing-style answers. I will just quote one question-and-answer here for your consideration:
I love McFlurry, but whenever I eat it, my skin turns red and chapped, my mouth stings and I have difficulty breathing. The problem seems to be getting worse. Should I continue eat it in the hope that I might harden myself, or is there some other explanation? Do you put poison in McFlurry?”
There is absolutely no poison in the McFlurries. If you are having some particular kind of reaction when you eat a McFlurry, then it would be advisable you discontinue purchasing and eating them immediately, and speak to your doctor about the symptoms you are having.
In this blog, we often discuss cases showing how technology has changed society in some way. In this case, however, it seems that little has changed. More particularly, McDonalds has always been dousing rumours that its food is insalubrious or not composed as advertised. For example, an article from the Christian Science Monitor in 1979 shows the restaurant chain squashing a pair of unsavoury rumours. The first rumour held that McDonalds burgers were not 100% beef, as advertised, but rather contained ground-up worm as filler. Not true, the company replied:
The worm rumor, which began in August last year, had swelled by November to such proportions in Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana that the company held a press conference in Atlanta to refute it. Sales were down 30 percent in four Atlanta stores….
This rumour has the earmarks of an urban legend, especially the kind where something disgusting is imputed to a common food.
The press conference helped to squash the worm rumour, as the article notes. The second rumour, however, was more diabolical:
It wasn’t so simple with the earlier rumor, the one alleging that between 5 and 50 percent of the profits from McDonalds were contributed by its founder, Ray Kroc, to the San Francisco-based Church of Satan.
This rumour somehow got started in a Baptist Church in Akron, Ohio.
… the minister printed the allegation in his parish newsletter. “It went in a chain from newsletter to newsletter,” explains Mincer, who says it circulated from denomination to denomination. “Some church leaders were preaching from the pulpit against McDonalds.”
This rumour also has the appearance of an urban legend, this one spread through mimeograph, kind of duplicator often used for low-ciruclation newsletters at the time.
The moral of this little tale seems to be that the human need to spread gossip is persistent and resilient. Whether by word-of-mouth, mimeograph, blogs, or Twitter, salacious stories will appear and circulate. For McDonalds, the challenge will be in choking them off rather than inadvertently nourishing them.
Social robots January 25, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The recent issue of the ACM Communications has an article about the social life of robots. In the article, Wright points out that people’s established view of robots is that of the solitary automaton, single-mindedly carrying out its programmed function. Think of Robby the robot or even the Terminator. Social robots, however, would be at home working in groups and even interacting with humans.
(German Federal Archive/Wikimedia Commons
As Wright points out, the potential of social robots seems clear:
In theory, collaborative robots hold enormous potential. They could augment human workers in high-risk situations like firefighting or search and rescue, boost productivity in construction and manufacturing, and even help us explore other planets.
Given the potential payoff of robots that collaborate to complete their assigned tasks, why has it taken so long for research in robots to engage with this problem?
One answer is, of course, that organizing the activities of a team of complex robots is a non-trivial endeavor:
At the most basic level, collaborative robots need access to each others’ sensory data, so they cannot only “see” via their fellow robots, but in some cases reconcile perceptual differences as well. They then must learn to merge that shared spatial data into a unified whole, so that the robots can converge effectively in a physical space.
To function as a team, robots must learn to negotiate decision-making processes in a distributed, multi-agent environment.
Unstated but also present is the issue of safety. That is, if the activities of a group of robots is difficult to co-ordinate, then the result of letting them loose is difficult to predict. Single robots can occasionally act in unpredictable ways, sometimes creating issues of safety for anyone around them. Imagine then the problems that an ensemble of robots might create.
This issue is not necessarily cause for pessimism or alarm. I suspect that diligent research can lead to an acceptable level of safety and control for collaborative robots. My suggestion would simply be that roboticists consider the safety issue from the start, and build safety features into the basic design of their robots rather than treating safety as something that can just be bolted on sometime later.
Stay in your lane! January 24, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The New York Times has an article discussing computerized systems that allow cars to stay in their lanes by themselves. Basically, forward-facing cameras on the rear-view mirrors attempt to track the painted lines on the road and keep the car in between them. If the car begins to drift out of the lane, then the system can display a message, issue a verbal warning, or even instruct the steering system to bring the car back within its lane. The system can be disabled by the driver and remains inactive if the car’s turn signal is on.
(Don O’Brien/Wikimedia Commons)
The basic idea is definitely a win. After all, when a car leaves its lane unintentionally, then the risk of an accident increases. The article also notes some of the limitations of this kind of system. For example, marks on the roadway may not be very distinct and thus would be impossible to follow. Also, glare from the sun or from the headlights of oncoming cars can wash out the image in the cameras, rendering the system unusable. I presume that the system is programmed not to take any action when it detects such circumstances.
Another issue pointed out in the article is that of risk compensation, the tendency of people to increase their acceptable level of risk due to their knowledge that safety equipment is present. If drivers believe that their cars will automatically keep them in their lanes, then they may cease to pay close attention to the road, raising the risk of an accident due to some unnoticed problem. The likelihood of such behavior increases further given that most drivers will have other gear, e.g., cell phones, that soak up any spare attention.
I would just add that there is the potential for privacy and security issues as well. The article does not say, but I imagine that the system tracks the history of its use in an on-board computer. Thus, someone could access the car’s computer and figure out whether or not it left its lane. It might be possible to correlate this information with any GPS or other data available in order to reconstruct a complete log of the car’s whereabouts and behavior. Who should be allowed access to this data? Of course, the police could obtain it with a court order. But does it belong to the car’s owner or the manufacturer? Car manufacturers might find uses for the data, perhaps to mine it to analyze how their cars are actually driven on the roads, and how they perform under different conditions. Nissan supplies similar data from its cars to a social network called Car Wings that it runs. This network tells drivers how they have been doing, compared to their past history and to other drivers. These comparisons are intended to help drivers use their cars more efficiently. Will data from lane-keeping system end up on a proprietary network? Will manufacturers strike a deal with Facebook to post the data there?
Then there is the security issue. The computer systems in cars are vulnerable to hacking, even from outside the car itself. Security researchers have been able to hack into cars and control the vehicle brakes, one wheel at a time, for example. A car with an autonomous lane-keeping system might allow a malicious intruder the opportunity to take over the steering system as well. It is important for the acceptance of more automated automobiles that they do not become more vulnerable to outside interference.
Alarming art theft January 19, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Bruce Schneier points out a recent incident in which thieves stole paintings from a Greek art museum after deliberately setting off the alarm system. This news may surprise you, but here is the relevant point:
Beginning Sunday evening, the robbers intentionally set off the gallery’s alarm system several times without entering the building, according to police.
The security staffers on duty, who investigated and found no disturbances, subsequently disabled at least one alarm. The burglars then entered through a balcony door.
Pretty funny, at least from this distance.
This incident provides a nice illustration of the problem of unintended consequences. The alarm system was installed, of course, to deter and prevent thefts. Unfortunately, it seems that museum’s designers did not realize that the incorporation of an alarm system might create failure modes that are not present in the museum alone or the alarm system alone. (See here for discussion of a canonical example by Henry Petroski.) Specifically, the presence of an alarm system creates the possibility of alarm fatigue. In this case, museum guards became tired of hearing the false alarms, attributed them to some technical problem (I imagine), and disabled the alarm so that their problem would go away.
How is it that designers overlook difficulties of this sort? One explanation concerns bounded rationality. That is, people are not optimal problem solvers. Instead, they do the best they can in solving problems, given the limitations of their knowledge and understanding, and the complexity of the situation they are in. In this case, people who design museums are not trained in human psychology, so that alarm fatigue is not an issue they know about. Thus, they overlook the problem out of ignorance.
Another possibility is what I call motivation-biased design. (See here for other examples.) Designers are influenced by their attitudes towards things in their given situation; in this case, feeling positive about protecting precious artworks might lead designers of the museum to forgo taking a negative, skeptical view in the assessment of their solution.
Of course, it would be correct to point out that incorporation of an alarm system is standard for museums of any importance. Thus, this aspect of its design was probably seen by the designer as a “no brainer”, and thus not requiring deep thought. True, although this point merely moves the origin of the design flaw back to whenever the standard was set, instead of explaining how it ultimately eluded scrutiny.
Doubtless, the full explanation for this incident is complex. However, it does illustrate the importance for designers of considering the context in which their solutions are meant to operate.
The “check engine light” considered harmful January 18, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A recent Wired.com article discusses why the check engine light on modern cars is, at least, lame. As most readers already know, the check engine light is a little glyph somewhere on your dashboard that lights up whenever your car’s onboard computer detects some sort of engine fault. As Jason Torchinsky argues, to have a generic light that comes on when something goes wrong is rather uninformative. In this respect, it is like getting an “invalid input” error message after entering text into a field in a computer app or Web site. Since you do not know what the nature of the error is, the message is merely frustrating.
Of course, as Torchinsky admits, the driver could buy a special scanner to plug in to the car’s diagnostic system in order to read the error code and find out what the problem is. However, as he points out, not many drivers are likely to want to keep such a scanner around, or even feel confident about using it correctly.
In a way, the “check engine” light is worse than the “invalid input” message. In the case of the input message, the frustration comes partly from not being told how to correct the problem. The “check engine” light does, however, suggest a course of action: Take the car to the dealer. Torchinsky objects that this setup puts car owners at the mercy of mechanics:
By failing to provide this information to consumers, regular drivers — that is to say, those who aren’t going to ferret out the codes themselves, and then fix the problem — are beholden to dealerships and mechanics for information readily available in a product they’ve paid for.
The commercial purpose of the “check engine” light is, then, to create anxiety in drivers that can be relieved only by purchasing information from a professional.
Torchinsky points out that there are alternatives. Many cars today incorporate video screens into the dashboard. It would seem to be a simple matter for the designers to use those screens to display the diagnostic message that would otherwise appear on the special scanner.
Torchinsky’s complaint reminds me of a similar issue raised by Matthew Crawford. In his book Shop class as soulcraft, Crawford argued that automotive designers, in particular, cultivate a sense of learned helplessness in their customers. A new model motor bike, he points out, has a light that comes on when the engine oil needs to be topped up. The light is supposed to prompt the owner to take the bike to a dealer for remediation. Replenishing engine oil should be a snap for any bike owner, Crawford scoffs, so this design feature is merely a craven ploy to substitute a kind of passive consumerism for basic mechanical savvy among owners, to the benefit of dealers.
I suppose that one could argue that a “check engine” light, like a “change oil” light, is consistent with the tenants of user-friendly design that is much promoted today. The lights impose as little as possible on the car or bike owner, while directing them to take some appropriate action when a problem occurs. Crawford’s response is that designs should sometimes impose on their users; it is an opportunity to teach the user how their gear works. To miss this opportunity is to deprive the user of the dignity that comes with command of their gear.
Torchinsky’s objection falls into the consumer protection category. The “check engine” light simply places the car owner at a disadvantage:
Information is power, and by denying you this information, automakers are denying you power. If you’re driving along and that damned check engine light comes on, you have no way of knowing if it’s a minor problem — the gas cap is loose, for example — or you’re at risk of imminent engine failure. A generic check engine light also makes it easier for dishonest mechanics to take advantage of unknowing customers.
Maybe. Of course, most owners will not need assistance fixing a loose gas cap. However, many owners may simply be confused by a detailed error message such as “Secondary air injector: incorrect flow”, which is displayed in the picture in Torchinsky’s article. As cars get more complex and computerized, they will only become harder for most owners to understand.
So, I suspect that the situation needs more thought. Torchinsky is right that the “check engine” light is an inadequate design for today’s car. However, most drivers will derive little benefit from a technical description of some engine fault appearing on their dashboard. Instead, designers need to think about a model of the car’s systems, an idealization of some sort, that owners can understand and that will help them to take appropriate action when a problem occurs. In that way, owners can be educated as far as is possible, and saved from the machinations of their mechanics.
Flashing lights January 11, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Scott recently commented on the use of Twitter by drivers to warn others of RIDE checkpoints. Police do not like this use of Twitter because they regard it as obstruction of justice. After all, RIDE programs are a legitimate bit of police business and, furthermore, are designed to protect the public from drunk drivers. Even so, as Scott points out, it is not clear that authorities have the right to censor or censure people for using Twitter in this way because of their right to freedom of expression.
I am reminded of a similar controversy over drivers who flash their headlights to warn others of speed traps. In a recent case in the UK, a driver was successfully prosecuted for obstruction of justice for doing so:
Presiding magistrate Jean Ellerton told him: ’We found that your flashing of your headlights was an obstruction, we found that you knew this action would cause vehicles to slow down and cause other motorists to avoid the speed trap and avoid prosecution.’
In Florida, driver Eric Campbell is suing the State after being ticketed for flashing his lights after spotting a radar trap. He was given a ticket apparently on the ground of a law that prohibits the use of lights in imitation of emergency vehicles (which often use flashing lights). He fought the ticket in court and got it dismissed but is suing on the grounds that the real intent of the ticket was to suppress his freedom of speech in communicating with other drivers.
Here in Ontario, there is a similar law that prohibits drivers from flashing their lights to imitate emergency vehicles. The article also states that there is no specific law that forbids Ontarians from flashing lights to each other to warn of speed traps. The rationale for having no such law seems to stem from considerations of freedom of expression:
“It’s not an offence under the Highway Traffic Act in Ontario,” confirms Sgt. Cam Woolley of the Ontario Provincial Police. “Drivers are free to communicate with each other.”
“Ever since speeding laws were enacted, motorists have been warning each other,” says Woolley. “Truckers use a lot of signals. They also warn each other on CB radio.”
Woolley says the police themselves often warn drivers of speed traps by announcing “hot zones” on radio stations, or by using pixelboards or fixed signs to identify school zones and other areas where radar may be present.
In fact, the OPP recently reverted to a traditional black-and-white paint scheme on their vehicles so that cruisers are easier to spot.
“Visibility is a key thing that we do,” he says. “We want motorists to see our presence and act lawfully.”
Nevertheless, police do sometimes hand out tickets in response to the practice, even though they may well get thrown out in court afterwards. In a recent incident, a Guelph driver was pulled over for warning other drivers and found to be driving with expired plates and driver’s license. Police exalted in their victory:
In a media release, Guelph Police seemed to savour the rare triumph over someone who tries to warn other motorists about speed traps, noting “it doesn’t pay to stand out in a crowd.” The release was titled “Good Samaritan Warns the Wrong Motorist.”
So, we have a mosaic of policies and practices.
Much of the debate on this issue centers on whether flashing high beams to warn of speed traps and the like should be compared to their use to warn of road hazards (e.g., your headlights are off, or there is an obstacle on the road ahead of you), which is the view of motorist advocates, or should be compared to communications in a criminal gang (e.g. the lookout who warns the other burglars that the cops are coming), which is the view of some police.
Whatever the case, there is another matter to consider here. I have to admit that I tend to signal other drivers when I see a trap. Also, I enjoy it when others signal me on the road. The exchange of warnings forms one of the few opportunities for positive social interactions among drivers, who so often figure otherwise as mere obstacles in one’s path. Driving can be an isolating and technostressing experience, so I think that many drivers simply crave the chance to do something they can feel positive about. Perhaps we should be thinking of was of designing roads and cars so that there are more opportunities of this sort, at least ones that do not distract drivers from the road.
Twitter terrorism and terrible twits. January 10, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : Uncategorized , comments closed
Just before 2011 ended, two Twitter news items caught my eye: Twitter lawsuit threatened over alleged Hezbollah aid (CNN) and Police fight back against tweets that reveal RIDE checkpoints (Globe and Mail). The first article is essentially asking if Twitter is somehow aiding and abetting terrorism and terrorists. Apparently, several groups recognized by the US government as terrorist organizations have Twitter accounts with several thousand followers, and another group complained:
“It has come to our attention that Twitter Inc. provides social media and associated services to such foreign terrorist organizations,” Darshan-Leitner wrote. “Please be advised that (doing so) is illegal and will expose Twitter Inc. and its officers to both criminal prosecution and civil liability to American citizens and others victimized” by Hezbollah, al-Shabaab and other foreign terrorist entities.
I came across this news item via another website, where the discussion seemed to tend towards the idea that Twitter, like all technology, is neutral and cannot be held accountable for what people do with it. A terrorist might also find a hammer useful, but nobody is threatening Craftsman tools with lawsuits. This is a fairly common perspective among those with an instrumentalist view of technology: tools can be neither good or bad, the only values that matter are those of the people who use a tool and in how they use it for good or bad.
My take on this, however, is that Twitter does contain values. Famously, it promotes condensed bursts of information which are limited to 140 characters, rather than more lengthy bodies of text that can, presumably, carry more information with greater nuance, analysis, detail, reflection and so on. Moreover, anyone can use Twitter: an account is free, the software is free, and there are many different ways to access the social network without much restriction. There are no official moderators, and Twitter is a private company. Another value then is of freedom of communication, of a democratic technology with its users (or citizens) having a high degree of freedom, without central control or oversight. And so, Twitter is not entirely neutral. It is compatible, and strongly linked with particular and preferred views of the world. Certainly, Twitter would not exist in the same way without those values.
I see these values reflected in the second article, which describes the use of Twitter by civilians to broadcast the location of drunk-driving checkpoints:
On major holidays, Twitter lights up with a flurry of tips on avoiding breathalyzer-wielding officers. In the past month alone, users in several Canadian cities have set up accounts for the sole purpose of aggregating these tweets. Those who do it argue they are simply helping sober drivers avoid traffic tie-ups. Police say such actions could cost people their lives. They have little legal recourse, however, prompting one web-savvy Toronto cop to take to Twitter in an effort to shame people out of thwarting his fellow officers.
The article explores why an obstruction of justice charge would be legally difficult, though it goes unsaid that the police simply don’t have the power to censor or moderate Twitter accounts. Instead, they must join the network, more or less as equals with other users, and attempt to subvert the process by shaming tipsters, who soon acquire a number of brief Twitter-like labels: “dirtbags,” “losers” and “drunk driving fans.” Not only is the technology value-laden, but it encourages certain patterns of use.
I should think that similar analysis could easily be carried out with Facebook to demonstrate various built-in values related to personal privacy (or the lack thereof in the modern world).
Is Internet access a human right? January 6, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Vint Cerf has written an interesting little piece in the New York Times arguing that Internet access is not a human right. He notes that this opinion runs counter to that given recently by a UN special rapporteur and the governments of France and Estonia (and Finland), which have made access a civil right.
(Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons)
Cerf concedes the importance of ‘net access as an enabler for the realization of rights, such as a right to freedom of speech or expression. However, he argues that the ‘net is merely a tool, and so not worthy or eligible for the status of a human right:
… technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.
There is substance to this argument. For example, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants mobility rights to each citizen. That is, Canadians are entitled to move about freely within the public realm of the country, particularly for the purpose of changing residence or seeking work. The Charter does not guarantee to citizens any particular means of mobility, such as a road system, a horse, or a car.
However, Cerf may be missing the point. Although the Internet is a technological item, it is not only that. Consider first that the Internet has remained the Internet even though the technology has completely changed (several times) since Cerf and other researchers first invented it. Thus, the Internet should not be identified with this or that set of hardware.
I made a casual statement about how “technology is a tool.” It’s an innocuous phrase that has been uttered by millions of technocrats at one time or another.
But Graham looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Andrew, I have to disagree with you. IP is a social contract, not a tool.”
The instant he said it, I knew it was true, and I realized I had missed an important piece of the puzzle. IP (Internet Protocol) is a relatively simple set of rules used by all the individual networks that comprise the “Internet.” The IP rules work only because individual network operators have informally agreed to abide by them for the last twenty years or so–an informal social contract.
On this view, the Internet is not a particular collection of gadgetry but an item that obeys a protocol or agreement about how such gadgets should interact. Adhering to the agreement or contract is what makes something the Internet, not its momentary physical configuration.
In that case, a right of Internet access is not a right to access a particular collection of hardware. Instead, it is a right of access to a certain form of communication, regardless of the exact means.
Perhaps, then, Cerf’s concern is unfounded. Those who advocate a right of Internet access are not trying to force the government to guarantee each citizen a horse. Instead, they are advocating that governments guarantee each citizen some opportunity to communicate via the ‘net. This notion is not then as crazy as Cerf makes it sound. After all, access to the ‘net is overtaking traditional rights, such as freedom of assembly and mobility. If you have ‘net access, then your need to go to a particular location to discuss current events or to seek work is diminished. If ‘net access is rising to a par with access to public spaces and to other provinces, then surely it deserves serious consideration as a civic right.
Faked photo from North Korea January 4, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
With the recent passing of North Korea’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, a big state funeral was inevitable. As photos of the scene were transmitted, it seemed that one, produced by the North Korean Central News Agency, was retouched. It appears to have been taken from nearly the same vantage point as another photo distributed by Japan’s Kyodo News Agency, and perhaps only a second afterwards. Yet, a group of onlookers to the left of the frame has disappeared in the later photo. The group was replaced with an image of some snow cloned from another part of the image.
Why would the North Koreans bother with the manipulation? The article speculates that the North Korean editors want to keep up appearances:
North Korea, too, has a facade to maintain: that of a nationalistic people who are happier than their neighbors in the South.
Perhaps, although it is hard to see how the altered image increases the appearance of happiness. Besides, shouldn’t people look sad at the passing of their beloved tyrant? Another possibility is that doctoring photos is very easy with modern software and the North Korean press is quite used to touching up photos and other records and may simply have thought that the doctored image looked less cluttered.
Why should we care? It is not inherently immoral to alter an image. However, as the article explains, images made for journalistic purposes, and thus intended as historical documents, have a special purpose that calls for special care. Notes Bob Steele, a journalism ethics professor at DePauw University:
“We must recognize how easy it is to alter reality; when it comes to journalism and documentary photography, there must be an assumption that authenticity and truth are guiding principles. If we don’t have that, then we don’t have trust. And if we don’t have trust, we have a breakdown in communication within society.”
See also Scott’s discussion of “fauxtography”.
In this case, we seem to have a straightforward problem with authenticity, in the sense that the doctored photo is not genuine. That is, a segment of the image originated not at the funeral but subsequently in a computer application.
Yet, looking at the image raises other, more problematic issues of authenticity. On my monitor, at least, the North Korean Central Press Agency image appears brighter than the Kyodo image. That is, the snow seems whiter. Is that also a result of Photoshopping? Or could it be due to the use of different lenses or cameras?
Suppose that the North Koreans had not done any Photoshopping but had used a lens filter with the intention of making the snow more white and thus nicer looking. Their intention would thus be, perhaps, similar to the intention behind removing the untidy crowd on the left. Would the filtered but not-Photoshopped image be authentic? It would certainly be genuine, as every pixel would have originated at the original scene. Yet, its truthfulness could be questioned. Would it be appropriate to retract such a photo, as occurred with the Photoshopped version?