Attributing identity to imagery & words

René Magritte painted his Surrealist masterpiece ‘The Treachery of Images’ back in 1929, but its message (questioning our habit of confusing images or words for the things they only represent) is more relevant today than ever.

I think it’s relevant because, in many cases, physical objects are now less obviously important — they fill a space towards the middle or end of situations, rather than being the starting point. Today, we regularly rely on representations. Take shopping, for example:

Previously, the bricks and mortar supermarket was the starting point for our weekly shop. Depending on how savvy your preferred brand was, you might receive an email later in the week, or be tied into some form of club membership scheme, but the point is that we ‘went shopping’, to a place that not only physically represented the store, but was without doubt the store we intended to go to.

Fast forward to today. The first stop for many of us is a virtual representation of the store we would like to visit (its website), in order to see pictures of things we want to buy. Those physical things arrive at the very end of the process — delivered to your door. Up until that moment, we are trusting that website to be what it says it is and, in many cases, believing the picture of those Nike Air Jordans are in fact the Nike Air Jordans that we are buying.

This modern change in the positional importance of physical things is much the same for person to person interactions. Look at online dating:

Previously, we would see a potential date in a physical location — a bar, perhaps. We would take physical cues (their appearance, their voice) from that very moment, and use them to make an assessment of their identity and whether we would want to see them again. If we did want to see them again, we would use phone calls and text messages to make it happen. So, from the physical to the virtual and digital, but if you believe the rumours about the impending Dating Apocalypse, that journey is being turned on its head.

It’s now normal to assess potential dates without ever meeting them — seeing instead a virtual representation of the person they would like us to see and, in the lead up to meeting them (and thereby receiving the ‘physical’ part of the experience), trusting that they are who they say they are. It’s this ‘trusting’ part that adds tension, not just in dating situations but also in pretty much any online conversation with someone we’ve not yet met in person.

We readily convince ourselves that ‘John’ and ‘John’s profile picture’ are John himself, but of course they’re not — they are just representations of a physical being. Contextual aids — like a collection of videos, photos and status updates — can help to increase our confidence that John is John, or that Jane is Jane but it’s potentially dangerous to mistake those symbols for anything other that what they are: just words and images. Our willingness to do so depends on the degree of confidence and accuracy that we require at that moment.

Thanks to regular news articles on events where people have pretended to be someone else online, it has become obvious that relying on another person’s profile information for transactions of high value (high value goods exchange, situations that invite risk to personal safety) is not a good idea.

It’s too easy for people to build a fake identity online and too easy for them to take advantage of our inclination to confuse images or words for the things they only represent — just like Magritte commented on way back when.

We’re moving into a time where an instant, up to date expression of real identity is the ideal, as opposed to relying on an accumulation of things like photos, job roles, usernames and passwords.

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