Seeing Quickly: reasoning in the age of Trump

26 Nov

President Trump’s behaviour is often a lightning rod for contemporary issues. Take the altercation between him and the CNN reporter Jim Acosta. There is one video going the rounds on social media that shows Acosta pushing the Whitehouse intern who seeks to remove the roving microphone he is holding; he resists her efforts. This video suggests that Acosta is, indeed, bad mannered and ‘horrible’, as Trump puts it; ‘Look at how he treats an intern!’ Democrats are saying that this video is ‘false’, based on cut segments replayed in sequence to exaggerate Acosta’s bodily actions. One can readily believe it. One only has to think of the reputation of the AltRight crowd.  But, just as that faction in American politics seems to falsify with video, think of how the left does it too. Recall the evisceration of Prime Minister May at the last general election in the UK, for example. Then the so-called Cornbynistas devised video ‘memes’ that showed Mrs May saying the same words again and again like a malfunctioning robot. These too were based on splices of videoed action cut together to create a false image.

In short, truth seems to go out the door with the affordances of digital video.

Should we no longer trust video? If not, then what do we trust? Hasn’t video become the lingua franca of our times? Certainly, news reports are replete with video, with tales from the field not being written but shown; our social media feeds are populated by video too.

It is not so much that one wants video, though. It seems to me, and this is what this blog is about, that we all want to see. Seeing seems more important, better than other modes of understanding – whatever they might be (reading, listening, and so on).

Why has seeing come to have this status? Do we presuppose that what one sees should be given more credibility than, say, what one reads? Do things have to be seen if they are to be taken as truth? If this is the case, it begs questions about who sees, what they see and who is us doing the seeing for us.

Consider journalists: one might say that they act as our seeing agents; they are representative of our eyes. Given this, is it better that they capture what they see with video, rather than interpret what they see with words? Do the resulting videos stand as proxy for our own line of sight, a line of sight we would have if we were there instead of them? As I say, our news services do seem replete with video, not with written analysis.

Perhaps this is how journalism is being shaped at the current time. If this is so, then what does it say about such things as our justice system? Here, too, people act as our representatives: judges act on the public’s behalf. Are they, likewise, shifting their practices to make seeing increasingly central to the judgments?

Judges do look at the visual, that is for sure; but it seems to me that their looking has some subtleties that we can readily acknowledge make it different from our own ways of seeing. Judges don’t simply look, they look and they listen to what a witness says about what something looks like and juxtapose this account against other witness’s accounts. A judge puts these accounts alongside other sources of information. These may including other visual materials but also documentary phenomena, such as traces of action stored in computer systems – records of bank transactions, say, written documents too. Visual witnessing is only part of what judges judge on. Judges subsume questions of seeing into questions of evidence and its heterogeneity – where seeing is only one mode of truth.

So, should we approach the farrago over Trump’s altercation with the CNN reporter as nothing more than an example of ‘troubles with seeing’ when all we have is a certain type of seeing – it’s the gaze enabled by the media, by click-thru’s on social media. It is not seeing in the general that is at issue, but specific social practices.

Perhaps. But surely there is a deeper question here bound up with how easy it is, with digital tools, to ‘crop’, ‘highlight’, ‘remove’, ‘insert’ and ‘recast’ the narrative arc of some ‘seen event’ and, given this, the power of the visual as a mode of information gathering. The visual is powerful, despite being easy to falsify.  The visual can be said to anchor everyday veracity, for example. A judge treats the visual differently because he/she is not in the everyday mode. Indeed, many psychologists would say that what a person sees in everyday life functions more deeply in the processing of consciousness than, say, ideas or thoughts; in this view (no pun intended) to see does have precedence in questions of knowledge. In my own field, human computer interaction, this psychological view is often used to justify the merits of visual memories and recall enabled by digital tools. One consequence of these efforts is that those who have less interest in the cognitive but more in technology and its consequences, such as media studies theorists, are coming to suggest that the ‘visual’ is measure of what we have become. The digital is making us visual, they say.

Yet these arguments from psychology and media studies miss something that, I think, is more important still. When it comes to the visual, to the use of video, it is not the ease with which what can be seen can be altered and made false that is at issue, it is the efficacy of conveying messages and eliciting responses quickly that is. What one should note about our current world is not that falsification is now more commonplace and easily achieved with video. It is not truth that is threatened by making visual concerns the anchor of our knowledge. It is, rather, a question of the pace of our judgements. We see and judge at a glance and do all this quickly; that is the point. We do not see and ask for more information, we do not think slowly. In this regard, the use of video in debates about politics reflects a desire for quick responses, not questions of objectivity and truth. We want quick actions in politics, not slow, ponderous choice making. Politicians must act, we can hear ourselves say, however compromised their choices as a result.

One might add that it is not just video that affords this rapidity. Think of Trump’s tweets. Whether they are true or not doesn’t matter, it’s the affect they have that does, and the affect is instant, unreflective, accusatory. They are sent quickly, read quickly, and have their affect quickly. It would appear that they are created quickly too.

And that is the point. We are all like Trump now. We might not tweet but we make judgements with a glance; we see, we believe; we judge instantly. It’s not the technologies that are undermining questions of truth, but the tempo of our thinking. And it is not just politicians who are thinking quickly. It is all of us.

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