September 27, 2023 - 7:00am

A video has leaked showing the new camera specs for Google’s latest phone, the Pixel 8, which launches in early October. The video demonstrates the new and improved Magic Editor tool, which, with the click of a button and the help of AI, will allow users to move subjects around in an image, erase objects or people, change backgrounds altogether, get rid of unwanted noise in videos, and, most creepily, change people’s faces altogether by swapping in expressions from other photos.

Apps like FaceTune, which allow users to easily tweak and tamper photographs in the pursuit of physical perfection, have already existed for years. However, the difference between FaceTune and the new Google Pixel is that the former allows users to distort memories, whereas the latter can manufacture completely new ones. Too many crowds during your city break to Venice? Remove them. Rained at your sister’s wedding? Replace clouds with a perfect pastel sunset. Your child throws a tantrum at their birthday party? Swap out their scowl for a smile.

In our increasingly deceptive digital world, photography has become less about seeing, and more about projecting. By documenting every aspect of our lives online, personal experiences have become public consumption, and the inevitable self-consciousness that comes with sharing means that moments only carry meaning if we can crop, filter and airbrush them into a carefully-curated highlights reel. 

These fictionalised visual narratives are having profound effects on the ways in which we think about ourselves and each other. The pressure to look ‘perfect’ means that 90% of young women report using a filter or editing their photographs before posting, while 35% of teenagers worry about their body image every day. Influencers and celebrities have been called out for photoshopping their children, and even school photographs — once the most authentic of moments, capturing childhood and adolescence in all its awkward glory — now offer retouching services. 

This new editing software will also change how we process memories. Research has shown that the convenience of smartphones leads to ‘cognitive offloading’, where we outsource our memory capacity because we know our camera roll will ‘remember’ things for us. We also know that constant photo-taking actually diminishes our ability to recall our experiences, distracts our attention, and takes us out of the moment. Now AI will take this one step further: we will remember things as they should have happened, or how we wanted to them to happen, rather than how they actually did.

When we think of the dangers of AI, we tend to think of the extremes, like the horrible story last week of a town in Spain where AI-generated naked images of local girls had been circulating. We may worry about fashion editors using it to shrink waists or plump lips, or we may be concerned about deepfake revenge porn or misinformation campaigns. 

Yet AI is not so much an apocalypse but a slow erosion. What should truly frighten us is how the everyday normalisation of the technology will fundamentally change our perception of reality. This collective, mass-scale manipulation will inevitably lead to more and more people feeling inadequate and disappointed, unable to live up to these artificial digital personas, and unable to find validation in real, natural, unedited photographs — because they simply won’t exist.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.