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Winchester School of Art

WSA Senior Teaching Fellow Reflects on Hidden Things with Big Impact in "The Atlantic"

Published: 1 October 2013

As you save your image as a JPEG and upload it to Facebook, does it ever occur to question what those letters mean? In an informative and thought-provoking article published in American magazine "The Atlantic", WSA Senior Teaching Fellow Dr Paul Caplan makes the nature of this file format accessible and entertaining, bringing into view the political importance of getting to grips with an apparently small thing that has big impact in our world.

Caplan's article, entitled “What is a JPEG? The Invisible Object You See Every Day”, is based on AHRC-funded PhD research he undertook at Birkbeck, University of London, supervised by WSA Reader in Media & Design Dr Jussi Parikka. It is part of The Atlantic’s Object Lessons Series, “a series about the hidden lives of ordinary things”.

Alongside an engaging explanation of the technical aspect of the file format – a compression standard and not a type of image, Caplan explains – the article elaborates on how major social networking site Facebook depends on the efficiency of the JPEG standard and on the way in which other major firms, such as Google, have attempted to rival the format, with little success. It reveals that one of JPEG’s major assets is its capacity to enable all sorts of additional information about the individual posting an image compressed by its protocols to be gathered together and made accessible, then used for both positive and more suspect purposes.

Of course, the implications of JPEG are inescapably political. Caplan astutely brings his discussion of the compression standard into the wider academic debate, initiated by political theorist Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter, around the value of acknowledging the active participation of non-human forces in events. Understanding forces such as electricity or, indeed the JPEG standard in terms of an expanded notion of materiality, which Bennett refers to as “vital materialism”, can, he argues, help us “understand how images and social networks operate.” It is impossible to doubt that the invisible force of JPEG plays a key role in the way our world now turns, so in reading the article, it certainly occurs that we cannot afford not to understand the forces around us in more expanded terms.

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