Since the creation of man and objects several years ago by God, the world has been awash with different forms of data collected, analysed, used, and transformed into different values by man. In all the stages expected for sourcing and transforming data, some individuals and organisations dominate the stages because of the types of power they have. In this piece, our analyst uses Images of the World and the Inscription of War, a 1989 film by Harun Farocki that presents a free-associative cinematic view on technology, perception, and morality, and a recent article by Anne MacKenzie and Anna Munster on how digital platforms curate and display images to users for an examination of the interplay of images, data, and power on digital platforms.
While Farocki leverages the military as the main actor in how various images during World War II were collected, transformed, and utilised, MacKenzie and Munster use digital platforms to establish how technological devices and architecture are assisting platforms in today’s data curation from users and reorganise the data in ways to reveal different perceptions from the users. MacKenzie and Munster argue that digital platforms create “image ensembles,” which are assemblages of images that are organised by algorithms and displayed to users based on their preferences and behaviours. In both contexts, there are similarities and differences in the existing power imbalance as well as ideologies.
In the film, the military and state have different functions. The power of the military is primarily represented through the images of tanks, soldiers, and military operations, which is evident in the opening sequence of the film, which shows tanks moving across the water and barren landscape, accompanied by the sound of their engines and the clanging of metal. The soldiers are shown in uniform, carrying weapons, and executing military manoeuvre with precision. However, the possible attention expected from the inhabitants of the land, watching the military officers while walking and moving their artillery, is synonymous with the “platform seeing’ concept proposed by MacKenzie and Munster, which refers to how users interact with images on digital platforms, such as scrolling, clicking, liking, and sharing. The authors note that this type of seeing is characterised by “invisualities,” which are ways in which certain images and perspectives are rendered invisible or marginalised by the platform’s algorithms.
The marginalisation could be further situated within the film’s power of the state, which is denoted through the images of government officials and bureaucratic institutions such as SS War Industries, commandants house, registration building, military headquarters, execution wall, gas chamber, medical experiment blocks, and penal barracks, which are expected to perform certain tasks with precision, like what is expected of Google’s, Facebook’s, and Amazon’s algorithms in today’s digital world.
Through the use of symbols and propaganda, ideology’s power is portrayed, which encourages soldiers to embrace state ideology and view their adversaries as evil. The forceful inculcation of state ideology, as the film exemplifies, is in tandem with the authors’ views about platform seeing as “blind seeing,” which influences algorithmic invisibilities and biases of platforms. As the authors posit, ideological power has already established a power differential among military officers and between the military and the state. On the other hand, the invisibilities and biases on digital platforms are reinforcing power structures and social inequalities between the owners and the users in today’s digital world.
Since the film and article demonstrate how those who hold the powers use different approaches to convey their ideas or messages to the inhabitants of the land (during the war) and the users, objectivity is hard to find in the images they handpicked. For example, in the film, the make-up for the women before photography represents a misrepresentation of ‘truth’.
Meanwhile, the dominance of ‘visual’ and the sense of ‘seeing’ in navigating the world today lies in the ability to use optics, cameras, screens, and artificial intelligence (AI), which has enabled humans to see objects and phenomena that are too small or far away to be seen with the naked eye. However, the dominance of visual perception is not universal across cultures, and some cultures may prioritise different forms of sensory perception or ways of knowing.
Some of the techniques and technologies used in the film for image curation and transformation into valuable data raised ethical and social questions about the use and control of visual information during the war. For instance, drawing and filming the nakedness of women raises stigmatisation and subjugation issues. In today’s world, this is also worth thinking about as platforms continue their aggressive deployment of artificial intelligence for data curation and commodification. We have seen how digital platforms helped the virality of users’ spreading the nudity of another user through AI.