Photoshop, The Oscars, Blockbuster Films, and Science Policy

Photoshop, the software-product-turned-verb, just turned twenty-five years old.

The co-opting of Photoshop into our lexicon is indicative of a pervasiveness of image altering technologies that should call into question whether “seeing is truly believing”.   But it still doesn’t. Ironically it’s often the technology savvy yet impressionable young minds that are still being fooled by digital distortions.

Appreciating the effect that media has in influencing us, Israel established a new law. Colloquially known as the “Photoshop Law,” the law came into force earlier this year.  Among other provisions, the law requires that advertisements showing digitally altered models provide disclaimers to that effect; the underlying premise: that these impossibly presented models representing unattainable figures can lead to eating disorders and low self-esteem in those targeted by the ads.

While the ability to distort photographs is almost as old as photography itself, as computing power becomes faster and cheaper, our ability to misrepresent reality becomes ever more impressive, sometimes raising ethical and social concerns.

Thus, like the models in advertising, other instances of misrepresentation through digital distortion can also have negative societal effects.  This is particularly the case in the entertainment media.   When we go to the movies, the advanced computer generated imagery often results in an incredible immersive and believable alternate reality.

Editorial Credit: dashingstock /
Editorial Credit: dashingstock /

This wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that a considerable portion of society gets and/or reinforces much of its education from film.  And, with a number of fact-based films vying for the Oscars this past Sunday, the issue as to how far dramatic license should extend is all the more timely.  For example, critics of the movie Selma are concerned that a whole generation —seeing the film as gospel— will grow up thinking that then United States president, Lyndon B . Johnson, was somewhat against the Civil Rights Movement, even obstructing Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts, or that prominent Jews like Abraham Joshua Heschel were not intimately involved in the movement. (It remains unclear as to whether or not, these concerns resulted in what some considered a snub by what Neil Patrick Harris referred to as “Hollywood’s best and whitest…”)

Problems with not-technically-accurate films masquerading as factually based films are not limited to just historical movies.    The issue is arguably exacerbated in science-fiction films wherein false facts implanted in our memory can, in some instances, become misleading touchstones for future conversations on that science.

Where some science-fiction attempts to be true to the science, such as another Oscar nominee, Interstellar, whose Caltech professor of theoretical physics scientific advisor, Kip Thorne, even wrote a bestselling companion book describing the science in the film, other films are egregiously inaccurate, skewing the policy debate.  Notable examples where movies have influenced science policy, for better or for worse, have been documented in the areas of climate change, genomics and nuclear power.

Granted not all films result effect policy debates, Interstellar, for all of its science, might not have any relevance to any current policy decisions.  But, as we still can’t tease out that je ne sais quoi that allows audiences to see the “Day After Tomorrow”, an inaccurate film about global warming, as possible fact, and Jar Jar Binks as pure fiction, any new release has the potential to be either a science policy nightmare or an irrelevant but entertaining blockbuster.

Free Speech enshrines the rights of filmmakers to mislead and misinform their audiences.  So what can we do?  Perhaps something akin to Israel’s Photoshop law –reminding viewers that what they are seeing is at the current state of the art, scientifically impossible– might help.  Until such a time though,  at least socially-conscious film producers can — like the recent movie “The Perfect 46” which had as the first frame of the movie the simple text:  “This film is scientifically authentic” — clearly let the audience know at the outset what liberties were taken in presenting scientific possibilities.

About the Author
Dov and others blog on behalf of the Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies at the Radzyner Law School, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel (IDC).