Search Engines: Second site Mongrel mentality

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The Independent Culture
THERE were protests when OJ Simpson's face appeared on the cover of an American news magazine several shades darker than in real life, and when black British car workers found that their images had been cut out of advertising photos for use in Poland. But electronic image manipulation is ubiquitous, and usually invisible. Often the implications may be overlooked by the manipulators themselves: sharpening up the video images of precision bombing will make the scene clearer to newspaper readers; and it will also convey the impression that war is a clearer business than it really is.

The standard image manipulation tool across much of the media is the Adobe Photoshop software package. It allows images to be created, cropped, highlighted and subjected to a battery of exotic processes, such as solarization and Gaussian blur. Photoshop is not so much a program as a medium in its own right. Its power is acknowledged in a parody of its now-obsolete Version 1, going by the name of MongrelSoft HeritageGold. Mongrel, its publisher, is a group of cultural and ethnic "mongrels" based on a trio of artist-hackers who see themselves as celebrating "the methods of an `ignorant' and `filthy' London street culture".

By way of illustrating how images can be manipulated, HeritageGold features a coat of arms whose bearers are twin images of Prince Charles as a boy, one "Negro"and one "Anglo-Saxon". The figures were produced by editing together an old picture of the Prince and a humorous postcard of two naked boys urinating. As it says on the Prince's Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense (shame on him who thinks evil of it). The Mongrel National Heritage Project's exercises are intended to unsettle their viewers. "You can't agree or disagree with the imagery we've produced," says Graham Harwood, who is responsible for much of the computer programming. Harwood dislikes the kind of sloganeering anti-racism which gives whites the comfortable feeling that they are not part of the problem. Instead of the menu option for "Preferences", used to select various software settings, HeritageGold offers "Prejudices".

HeritageGold satirises the fantasy that, in the modern world, we can be whoever we want to be, by promising a technology through which users can revise their racial heritage: "Have fun with EthnicEditor activities. It's never been easier to make the most of your race or change it." Alluding to Photoshop's dazzling array of manipulation features, HeritageGold offers the Clone Tool, Social Filters, One-Click Brown Skin Removal, and dozens of Special Effect Family History Clean Up Techniques which "let you edit and transform your Heritage into personal works of art". It's no more absurd than the invention of heritage for entire nations by the historians and writers of the 19th century, or the editing that families perform upon the oral lore of their own histories.

Another facility offered on the Mongrel website is Natural Selection, a parody of a search engine which, according to Harwood, is intended to "confuse and misdirect" racists who try to use it to find race-hate sites. It represents a radically different response to noxious Internet material from the automated censorship offered by Web filtering software, though Harwood acknowledges that Natural Selection is not going to change racists' minds.

Mongrel also offers a demo of BlackLash, a piece of Playstation politics in which a hacked shoot-'em-up computer game presents policemen and judges as targets, and a poem which spits racial abuse at the reader through dialogue boxes - a surprisingly unsettling device, which goes to show how much we users take friendliness in software's voices for granted. It's a mixed batch, with hits, misses and plenty of question marks, but that's the nature of mongrels.

Visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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