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Google Pixel 8’s new editing feature is dystopian

The Magic Editor tool can change people’s faces altogether by swapping in expressions from other photos.

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.

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Waffles
Waffles
9 months ago

We’ve gone full circle back to the pre photo days of paintings. Before cameras we relied on the artists interpretation of reality when they painted and drew events and people.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago

In 2020 Google took £3.5bn out of the UK economy and paid £200m in tax. This is because UK advertisers on Google search are billed from Dublin.
The company’s slogan used to be ‘do no evil’. What happened to that?

starkbreath
starkbreath
9 months ago

For more and more people, there’s no real life anymore, just endless internet bullshit. Which means that they’re increasingly becoming hollowed up simulacrums of human beings, ever stupider and both physically and mentally unfit.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
9 months ago

I used to make a little money on the side from landscape photography. Almost every amazing landscape shot you will see these days has been edited to within an inch of its life. This is simply AI enabling the democratisation of what used to require an expensive Adobe subscription and a heap of costly commercial plugins.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
9 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

And before that it all happened in the darkroom and you paid a technician – have you seen images of Richard Avedon’s terrifyingly detailed and complex editing instructions?

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
9 months ago

Perhaps I’m just weird, but instead of feeling inadequate and disappointed, unable to live up to the standard of artificial digital personas, I tend to find the dichotomy between what people project themselves to look like, and how meh they often actually look in real life, makes me feel more confident in myself.
That’s why I don’t really get why people post such pictures – if it’s not what you really look like, whatever you really look like (even if you don’t look all that bad) is destined to disappoint you and others. What is the point of doing it?

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago

Imagine a world in which mirrors had never existed. Apart from the occasional glimpse reflected in still water, our whole sense of self would be dictated by the way others interact with us.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

I find this interesting from many points of views, but including the aspect of:
“…we will remember things as they should have happened, or how we wanted them to happen, rather than how they actually did.”
I think it’s fairly well understood that our brains are the biggest filters of all. They have to be, since if everything it was possible to take in through the senses was actually experienced, we’d all go insane in an instant. Examples of filtered/distorted memory become apparent during court cases; for example, where two witnesses describe the same event in different ways.
This being the case, what does objectivity involve? Our subjective memories of an event may only differ from a photoshopped version in a matter of degree. The more important aspect is, i think, the inability of someone to live up to the physical standard they may have set for themselves in their online output. In that sense, isn’t it the experience of reality that becomes distorted by the filtered image, not the other way round?
If, for instance, two people meet on a date with the expectation their appearance will resemble their online photos, it’s almost a standing joke about the disappointment that can occur when it doesn’t. Obviously, not the best way to begin what might be hoped becomes a relationship based on honesty.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Murray
Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
9 months ago

Kristina’s never heard of Adobe Photoshop apparently.

William Shaw
William Shaw
9 months ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

I think the point is that even 12 year old girls now have access to that ability to distort reality and it eventually devastates their sense of self worth.
No doubt it will be primarily females that use and are affected by this capability.

Last edited 9 months ago by William Shaw
starkbreath
starkbreath
9 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

If you think male humans are not susceptible to this endless ‘perfecting’ of images and events you’re being willfully blind. Bullshit based on people’s fantasies, fears, insecurities and general insanity has always been a big seller to both sexes. The difference nowadays is that humans used to mostly have to deal with real life with the occasional foray into escapism. Now it’s the other way around.

Last edited 9 months ago by starkbreath