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Code Green

There are serious efforts underway to develop barcode scanners for consumers that immediately rate a product on its nutritional value and its impact on health. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has just announced that it will be working with other massive retail chains, environmentalists, suppliers and academics to come up with a standardized “green” rating system for the products it sells, focusing on their environmental and social impact. (See today’s New York Times piece.) Areas under discussion for the rating system include a product’s carbon footprint, byproducts such as air pollution and waste water, the health impact on workers, etc.

I have frequently commented, including in the After Photography book, that photography’s transition from analog to digital involves changing from an analog, appearance-based imaging system (with its focus on the phenotype) to a digital, code-based imaging system (concentrating on the genotype). Just as digital photographs are now inscribed as code and expressed as pixels, so too our code-based origins inscribed within us as DNA will eventually be considered an increasingly important factor in our identities. Digital media has an affinity for code, and future photographs will most likely evoke it.

A similar evolution can be seen in Wal-Mart’s plan: The codes defining products, rather than their slick appearance or packaging, may well have a greater impact on the consumer of the future. The bed produced without using underage labor and with fewer greenhouse gases released may be preferable for many consumers to a bed that was made by spoiling a stream.

It’s a trend that begins to ask whether photography, in its move to the digital, can and should incorporate both appearance and code, presence and history. Soon one may be able to wave a cursor or cellphone over a digital image and find out the ratings of each product shown, for example. Could the same eventually happen in portraiture, exposing someone’s genetic past and code-based vulnerabilities? Should it?

These are enormous questions that we will eventually have to deal with, making the current arguments over Photoshop manipulations seem petty. The Wal-Mart idea may be a great one, assuming that the rating system is an ethical and appropriate one. In other, less pragmatic aspects of life we will have to tread more cautiously. The digital genie is powerful and little understood.

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