Today's Salon has a good article about how easy it is to doctor photographs with digital technology ("A Picture Is No Longer Worth A Thousand Words," registration or click-through ad required). Towards the end of the piece, the author, Farhad Manjoo, and one of his interviewees, photographer Pedor Meyer, make an excellent point, reinforcing some of the complexities we discussed recently in A Participatory Panopticon?:
[Meyer says:]"...if you don't have other sources to confirm something, you can't conclude it happened. Now enter into the picture this fact -- over the last 12 months there have been more cellphones with cameras sold than all other cameras, digital or analog combined. Cameras are becoming ubiquitous. We have the possibility for the first time to cross-reference everything, something that was never done before. It doesn't matter if the picture is a shitty little picture, it's a reference." And if you have enough references, it doesn't matter if one person doctors an image; if a hundred -- or maybe a thousand -- cellphones say a massacre occurred, it probably happened.
In a cross-referenced, constantly photographed world -- a thing that might scare you but that is probably becoming inevitable -- we would probably have better proof of what actually happened in an important event than we do today.
This is another way in which Whole Earth Review was revolutionary... I clearly remember an article entitled "The End of Photographs as Proof of Anything" before Photoshop was even a glimmer in someone's eye (it was about the Scitex image processing system).
And Stewart Brand made the point prominently in his 1987 book on the Media Lab as well.
The cross-referencing insight is astute.