John Rawls' philosophical theme centers on the topic of "justice as fairness." It's hard not to relate this to one of the growing topics of discussion, namely the importance of digital deception which might well include the idea of airbrushing photos and images. Technology has the capacity today to provide us all with a Veil of Ignorance (Freeman, 2009) that even Rawls did not see coming and one that has the capacity of wiping away the honest elements of rationality and reason that he believes is necessary for people to be able to work together toward a balanced and honest society that works well for everyone.
The issue of airbrushing models or maybe the basic characteristics of those we admire or who are the attention of a public event can mean nothing more than making pictures prettier. This as we know can mean relatively little, or it can lead some to believe that the image that is most desired is of people who have certain body weights, overall looks, even sex appeal. But when digitally altering images to the point where the newest, most desired, fastest and most effective forms of communication use real and fake images nearly interchangeably, it can become problematic for society as a whole. Fortunately for us all, however, it appears that even though we are currently being distracted by the pretty face of fashionable airbrushing, the same technological revolution may have its own ways of returning the balance to this issue.
Rawls writing are relevant for several reasons. Rawls was trying to address problems he saw with other philosophical presentations, namely that they presumed form the start a variety of human conditions that were loaded with nasty biases and self-interests. He said that for us to understand what is true about justice and fairness in the human condition, we had to presume that people, in their raw state, would be free of an awareness of their special gifts, talents or conditions of life. Once stripped of these influences, people would be both rational about looking for what they need to survive, and reasonable about finding ways to get those results, up to the point of being willing to allow others to get what they need too so all can advance together. Under his conception, all people earning and being rewarded equally would not be fair either. So he offered that in their natural states people with the most creative of capabilities would learn to act on those and be rewarded accordingly, while those with fewer advantages would learn to use their conditions together to rise at once to greater opportunities (Freeman, 2009).
Rawls thinking can be seen better in another context too: as it relates to the issue of personal rights of privacy. There is a general agreement that for people to thrive they need some degrees of privacy. Under most legal interpretations, peoples' rights of privacy center on being able to keep control over some of their own abilities to make and maintain economic worth (Warren & Brandeis, 1890). If people can create new ideas and sell them in the marketplace, then they will be willing to do so to make the money they need. If they cannot trust the marketplace to allow them to do this because others steal or disrespect their right to their originality, then reasonable people would not return to the marketplace and society would be economically weak. Legal rulings by various courts of the world have said the laws should be interpreted this way. And most marketing strategies assume that this is a smart way for entrepreneurs to act -- presenting their products in a way that puts their best foot forward.
As new technologies have emerged, these basic rights of privacy have evolved or even begun to disappear. Now it is possible to use the graphics and programming capacities of the Internet to not just undercut the core ideas of protecting one's interests, but to entice people to literally give away their rights of privacy. The issues of reasonable and rationality of purpose get pushed aside as people opt to accept "user agreements" that clearly wipe out personal protections and create exceedingly different veils of ignorance that are often understood just by those who created the given door to the digital promises.
In a setting like this, it is now possible to see the concept of airbrushing as more than a simple graphic alteration of a minor visual issue. It can be seen as one step in a fundamental change of trust and credibility of the system that sources our knowledge. The issue is no longer about whether a photograph looks better when someone looks younger. Instead, its depth of change can be so great as to attract followers no matter whether there is any basis left in fact about what the person looks like.
This trend can partially explain why it is that the cases of food disorders seem to be growing even after a good deal of public education about the horrible health and mental health costs of bulimia and anorexia. People no longer have to see just the skinniest of skinny people as models; they can see all types of people, skinny or otherwise, who are made to look perfectly unnatural -- something that may be completely unreachable for them. Yet these totally false representations likely get the best social and monetary rewards. All of which means that ordinary people no longer have to worship obviously sick people to develop false image associations; they can now do the same with complete digital fabrications. It's hard to know exactly what this kind of cover-up may mean in the future.
Airbrushing critics often say they are not interested in all graphic enhancements; just those that are truly unjust. Said a local political figure in an article presenting the Liberal Democrats case (MailOnline, 2009): "I am not suggesting that advertisers should stop using models who are perhaps more beautiful than the average person. But there is a difference between doing that and using a beautiful model and nipping in her waist by two inches or taking slathers of flesh off her thighs." But what about the impact of simpler deceptions? What might it mean when the systems that even the youngest of technology users are accessing? Might it be the case that they too are bringing about fundamental changes in the social compact that Rawls proposed?
The news posting from MailOnline (2009) mentions that studies suggest children from seven to nine are at high risk. But other studies support that the impact is across more ages. In a recent study called "on my way," the authors (Birnholts, et al., 2010) undertake one of the first in-depth reviews of what seem to be fairly minor transgressions in the use of simple communication technologies among young adults (18 to 22 years). The investigators look at the "coherent, plausible and sometimes deceptive stories" that these students tell each other when texting communications to each other. They undertook a study of various explanations and excuses, with particular interest in what they call "butler" lies, which are the ways that people put others off much like a butler might by not letting someone in the door. This tactic proved to be one that was used regularly and deemed very successful, even among those who expressed concerns about misleading others online (James, 2011). It simply wasn't deemed that relevant of an issue no matter that it often represented flagrantly false information. Is this different than a little or a lot of graphic makeup?
So what happens if the competition gets more serious? Say, deadly serious? Or at least deadly as in show online video shooter games are played. These often violent games are not necessarily about minor transgressions. They can be about fair rules of combat, or they can be about severe strategies of lying and deceptions to save the world (similar to the real war information deceptions) (Hutchinson, 2006). People across many age ranges who play these games daily learn to falsify their entire personas, up to the point of creating fanatical Avatars of their own wild imaginations. Again, if falsifying an advertising picture is relevant, what must it mean to digitally alter the entire universe of good or bad guys?
But the more serious kinds of manipulation games should not be considered just child's play. There have already been a number of journalistic and political misrepresentations that raise questions about the display of supposedly objective knowledge. One, involving a Time Magazine cover story, portrays OJ Simpson's face with graphically altered colors and shades (Weisberg, 2011). The differences are remarkable and indicate judgments about how the publication may have been trying to change public opinion on guilt or innocence. The other, generally agreed to be unintentional, poised two pictures side by side in a graphic photo of a new incident covered in The Los Angeles Times. Though the creator of the image was not trying to do anything other than show the…