Awesome enough to disappoint?


As part of Google’s I/O event, they announced the Auto-Awesome feature for Google Plus. I met a Googler for coffee this afternoon, and that was what he told me about when I asked him what cool things had been announced.

Auto-Awesome is part of the ever-improving photo management facilities on Google Plus. It’s designed to curate and cure the photographs that you upload to the internet. And inadvertently, I worry that Google may have just made another step towards the internet being a gigantic Disappointment Engine.

Auto-Awesome is an algorithmic solution to the problem of people with digital cameras shooting lots and lots of not-very good photographs, and then burping them all up onto the internet. I can’t claim innocence in this: here’s rather too many pictures of an international lion dance competition from Hong Kong when I got carried away. With the cost of each photo (and the bandwidth to upload it) diminishing to zero, there’s much less incentive for a casual photographer to spend time picking and choosing only their very best photographs to share. (And since there’s no ‘Dislike’ button on Facebook, we haven’t got a very good feedback mechanism to stop people uploading 9/10ths junk.) Auto-Awesome will pick the best photos for you and promote them above the primordial soup that is the rest of your memory card.

It’s also there to solve the problem of all those group photos where one person happens to blink/another one sneezes/vomits/gets photobombed: Auto-Awesome will collage together the best face from each shot to give you a perfect group shot. And while it’s there, it will detect and stitch together your panoramic photos for you. What’s not to like?

Well, for a start I like photobombing, because when I’m running I often have to weave through groups of tourists taking eons to point their EOS cameras at one another and hit the shutter button. Stopping them from having to put up with blurry shots of my midsection obscuring Grandpa Joe is frankly more than they deserve. And an application that removes my face when I’m blinking will remove my face from all photos: my fast reflexes and aversion to flash means my eyes are always shut, unless you’re spending serious money and time on specialist equipment. And even then, I’ll probably still look unconscious.

More significantly, it’s not clear what counts as a ‘good’ photo to the Auto-Awesome algorithm. Even exposure? Contrast? Colour saturation? The rule of thirds? The presence of the Golden Ratio? The ability to break these ‘rules’? I don’t want to invoke Godwin’s Law yet, but I wonder what would happen if you uploaded Guernica and one of Hitler’s reportedly prosaic watercolours. Will we get to a point where all the photographs of somebody looking gloomy or heartsick or dyspeptic are cleared out, in favour of every shot where you look good and cheerful?

Somehow, it feels like we might be seeing the invention of Auto-Tune for photographs, and unlike Photoshop, you’re not going to have to spend a fortune to be able to retouch everyone’s faces. This could be the start of a future where all the awkwardness is filtered out, and even if there’s a feedback loop so that you can tell Google you like photos of people being gloomy, we might still be stuck in a homogeneous world. Or at least one where each of us isn’t challenged by the stream of images they see.

And finally, that gets us to a situation where all our photos are ‘nice’ (vanilla, tidy, well proportioned and not odd or strange). Not great, not terrible, but in-between. Believe me, tepid is not necessarily preferable to being ice cold or boiling hot (ask any food hygienist). The internet is a machine for producing disappointment. But with a virtual world where everything is fairly ok and reasonably good-looking, how disappointing will it be to venture out into the real world? We’ll need Google Blindfolds to get over the horrible, uncurated ugliness of the Real World.


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