Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Gods Of The Photoshop Headings

Over the last few months, it has become increasingly fashionable in the circles I move in to talk about signalling, the way we communicate and advertise things about ourselves to the world, and whether this is honest or dishonest. Often this is applied to politics in a negative way, with people we disagree with labelled as ‘virtue signalling’, that is, using beliefs as clothes in order to portray themselves as a better person than they really are. This, however, seems to miss a crucial point, which is the distinction between costly and cheap signalling. A signal that is more costly is more credible, and this can be used for good if the incentives are right.

Take gay rights, for example, a person or corporation putting a rainbow flag on their logo in order to signal progressive virtue is incredibly cheap. It takes ten seconds, no effort, and is free. It is therefore not especially credible. Someone who doesn’t care at all about LGBT people could easily do the exact same thing for facebook likes, and these people add a lot of noise into the signal, hence accusations of pinkwashing. Going on a march is slightly more costly, it’s a few hours of your life down the drain. I’m more likely to believe this person genuinely cares. At the top end, someone who devotes large portions of their time to campaigning or volunteering will be more credible still, nobody who didn’t really care would be willing to pay that substantial cost. All these things may be considered virtue signalling, they show people of similar views to you that you are a good person, but the latter is clearly better. What matters are the incentives, if someone has to actually do good things in order to signal that they are good, that’s fine by me, even if they aren't doing it out of any inherent goodness of character.

Last summer, virtue signalling had the Ice Bucket Challenge. The reason this worked was that in order to show how good you were, you had to pay a price, both in terms of unpleasantness (the cold water) and money (the charity donation). The incentives were therefore well aligned, even if the only reason people were doing it was virtue signalling, good was done for a good cause (ish). Inevitably though, there were still a few ‘free riders’, it is likely that some had not actually paid the price. Many people understandably found this repugnant, essentially ‘stealing’ a costly signal, and in the process casting suspicion over everyone.

Rachel Dolezal upset people because what looked like credible signals turned out to have been very cheap. How are we meant to evaluate someone if they can simply claim to be black, put a bit of fake tan on and get an outrageous perm? She hasn’t paid the ‘price’ in terms of racial discrimination that many others felt was necessary to claim the label and the benefits she gained from it. Similarly, Caitlyn Jenner and other transwomen seem to upset many radical feminists. By saying gender is simply a matter of identity, which anyone can choose to apply to themselves, they believe it is cheapened. Regardless of any number of decades of inner turmoil, they feel without the perceived cost of growing up and living as a woman, it’s all worthless and far too easy to fake. Cruelly, they see her as noise in the system.


The backlash against airbrushing and photoshop in recent years is part of the same phenomenon. Being attractive and in shape is a credible signal of health, good diet, and genes. Even makeup can only work with what is there, and often shows serious amounts of skill. Photoshop breaks this relationship by cheapening it. What we see on the page or screen is no longer believable, the noise in the system is increased and it’s difficult to pick out truth. When everything is SO beautiful, nothing is SO beautiful.

In a world full of empty signals, it becomes difficult to judge anything. Instead we start looking for authenticity, where the signal to noise ratio is higher. In fact, we may come to value authenticity over and above the beauty we were looking for in the first place. One of the funniest news story of the last year was the Cindy Crawford photoshoot. Leaked ‘unretouched’ photos showed the model looking if anything even older than her 49 years, and were dutifully passed around social media. ‘Cindy Crawford is so beautiful’, goes the catechism, as we all try to prove we aren’t taken in by cheap modern myths.

It later turned out, as you’ve probably guessed, that the photos were themselves faked, edited to make her look older and wrinklier. We are so desperate for authenticity that we will take a pastiche of it over the gloss of the real world. So busy looking for something believable that we forget what it is that we want to believe. It’s the essence of hipsterdom, with its elegantly scruffy beards, knowingly shabby clothes and fake polaroid filters.

The very best trolling exploits potential noise in these signals. Godfrey Elfwick is probably the king here. His schtick is to parody the very worst type of slacktivist, signalling virtue by jumping on every passing bandwagon, as well as a few of his own, while never paying any costs in terms of time, effort, or money. At the heart of this is frustration, half of what our brain does is separate sensory signals from noise, without that it’s impossible to ever make informed decisions. The troll adds to the noise, and by doing so exposes just how cheap and flimsy these signals are, and how little they should be trusted generally.

Solution there, it seems to me, is more costly signalling. Giving What We Can, who are generally great, demand a lot of virtue from their members, pledging to donate at least 10% of their lifetime income to the best charitable causes. This is obviously a very costly signal of their commitment, and the charity publishes a list of the people who do it. Unfortunately it seems to be filling up with students, who presumably don't donate much, so this does cheapen the signal somewhat, but hopefully its rigour will be maintained. There's nothing wrong at all with ostentatious signalling, as long as you really have the virtue to back it up, and if we pay no attention to their costs, we select for the very worst kind of signals.

Since when was this more beautiful than this?

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