After reading Punyashloke Mishra’s “The Role of Abstraction in Scientific Illustration: Implications for Pedagogy” and Mark Wolf’s “Subjunctive Documentary: Computer Imaging and Simulation,” I cannot help but wonder about the implications of the powerful rhetoric they discuss. More specifically, I found myself considering how such rhetoric could be used by people whose objectives would be considered disturbing by the standards of modern American morals.
Mishra discusses how graphics are powerful methods of communication which are strongly influenced by social factors. She writes, “Knowledge is socially constructed through collaborative efforts to achieve shared objectives in cultural surroundings, and that information is processed bet-ween individuals and the tools and artifacts provided by culture” (150). So, what happens when the politicians and thinkers who control much of the knowledge in a society decide to exert their rhetorical power by using the graphics discussed by Mishra to achieve an inhumane goal? We need look no further than the common historical example of Nazi Germany to provide an example of just such a circumstance.
One of the objectives of the leaders of Nazi Germany was to stigmatize the Jewish population. One of the methods they chose to do so was a propaganda campaign orchestrated through the use of both text and graphics like those discussed by Mishra. The graphic to the right shows one piece of propaganda personifying the Jewish people as an obese woman intent upon consuming the benefits of the labor of common workers. Those who orchestrated the campaign were attempting to eliminate sympathy for the Jewish people to allow Germany to better accomplish the systematic destruction of the stigmatized group. It appears their efforts paired with historical context and other contributing factors were exceptionally successful. About six million Jews were slaughtered during the Holocaust without any large scale rebellion against the leadership of Nazi Germany.
Wolf warns that computer simulations are beginning to occupy a similar niche and can twist the nature of reality. He writes, “Computer simulation’s speculative nature blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction and complicates the question of how far an indexical link can be stretched and displaced and still be considered valid in society, as facts get skewed, left out, misinterpreted, or filled in by theory and speculation” (429). The relatively new technology employed in the design of computer simulations means that it is difficult to point to commonly known historical examples of the power of computer simulations being abused by users of rhetoric who intentionally leave out or misinterpret information. However, the realm of fiction provides a wealth of applicable examples. The following video clip is from The Matrix.
In The Matrix, the line between fiction and nonfiction has become so obscure that most people are not even aware of its existence. All of the details of the world that most people think they live in are skewed or entirely fictional. People live in a computer simulation and do not have the wherewithal to recognize the situation. Of course, I do not mean to claim that we are living in a world like the one depicted in The Matrix. However, Wolf notes the unquestioning faith with which a large part of the population views computer simulations (427). It is important to consider how simple it would be for a person of decent intelligence and skill to manipulate a computer simulation and therefore the perceptions of those who put so much faith in them. As Wolf writes, computer simulations “can be made from whatever point of view is desired” (427). It is possible that certain computer simulations are already being designed to consciously manipulate the perceptions of their audiences. If not, I doubt it will be long before someone decides to use computer simulations and the trust people have in technology to attempt to accomplish some potentially harmful objective.
In spite of my thoughts about the way graphics and computer simulations can manipulate audiences, I would not advocate a course of action that would discontinue their use. They are too valuable of educational and scientific tools to be lost because of the possibility they could be used in a destructive way. After all, language can also be used to bring pain and disaster upon others and few would suggest that humans should not speak. However, I think it is vitally important to remain constantly vigilant for possible abuses of graphics, computer simulations, and other modes of rhetorical persuasion. Only then will we have an improved chance of identifying threats before they sow seeds of disaster amongst the population. The problem is that it will always be difficult to identify threats before they are thoroughly established.