Monday, March 6, 2017

Is Your Photograph You?


Obododimma Oha

A friend shared the following joke on a WhatsApp group platform:

Abeg anybody with 1000 Naira mtn should snap and send to me. I am in a remote village no recharge card … I will snap the 1000 note and send to you, please ….

That bore the signature of Nigerian 419 fraudsters who would break into someone’s email account and send an email to the person’s contacts claiming he or she (the owner of the account) is stranded in Istanbul, New York or London on account of being robbed or loss of his or her wallet and credit card, and is in urgent need of some cash to pay some bills. The mail usually evokes a lot of pathos and strikes a note of urgency. Who would not want to help a friend sending an SOS, what more when the supposed sender of the mail is an important public figure whose credibility is not in doubt? The stealing of the person’s email account is clearly the theft of the person’s identity, the image of the person, the credibility and all the person stands for. The 419 criminal who must have studied the mails in the folders could even refer to a previous mail to erase doubts.

Small-time Nigerian 419 criminals copy this pattern (thieves steal ideas from thieves!) and ask for recharge cards, claiming that they are stranded in remote villages and cannot recharge their airtime on the network. Again, as in the earlier case, they could be using a phone that they have stolen, pretending to be that person. Who would not want to help a friend stranded in a remote village, after all it is just a few Naira on recharge of airtime?

But it gets more ridiculous and unbelievable (for people who can think deeply or who are given to playing the doubting Thomas like me) when the 419 criminal in copying and stealing patterns takes the targets reasoning ability for granted and reproduces the deceptive text in an illogical fashion. Of course, 419 criminals capitalise on people’s orientation to gullibility and poor reasoning. The small-time 419 criminal in the case cited at the beginning of this piece hopes to benefit from the following, among others:

1. A group sense of solidarity, demonstrated in assisting a colleague. The criminal must have broken into the phone owner’s access to a social media platform, like a WhatsApp group, and now sends the message with the stolen identity, hoping to get MTN recharge cards, after which he would discard the SIM. Who would not want to assist a colleague, maybe a professional colleague, in a social media forum, especially when the person (impersonated) is highly admired and/or respected within the group?
2. The ubiquitous nature of camera phones and the growing skill in using the camera in recording and transmitting texts or situations.
3. The somewhat pervasive orientation towards not examining issues/situations very critically, especially given the growing religiosity in some societies, plus the tendency to pretend to be a good person (through giving).

The 419 text reproduced as a joke throws up some interesting philosophical issues. As I responded jokingly when I read the text, if you take a photograph of the money and send to your helper (who sent a shot of the MTN card), can he or she spend the photo? Is the photo of the money the same as the money? Is your photograph you? I think it raises an important ontological issue about a thing and its representation, a signifier (the form taken by a sign) and the signified (the concept or material object represented by the form). Is the signified the signifier?

Long ago, the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, in seeking to systematise Semiotics, the study of signs and signifying systems, made a distinction between the signifier and the signified. A photograph, which is an example of what Charles Sanders Peirce, another semiotician, classified as an iconic sign, signifies something or someone which is not the same thing as that person, even though by definition iconic signs reveal some resemblance of the signifier to the signified. But resemblance does not mean sameness. And that is where the deceptive act of the conman lies. Deceptions, as acts of falsehood meant to mislead, present resemblance as sameness, hoping the target being deceived would accept the blurred lines of distinction.

Your photograph is NOT you; it only resembles you through visual features and excites recognition through a kind of cognitive analogy: the viewer compares the mental image of someone with the photographic reproduction of that image. There could, of course, be other reproductions by other media. In fact, the photographic image may be close to reality but it is always removed from it, even twice removed, to echo Plato.
What is particularly amazing about the 419 recharge card text is that it eventually succeeds it getting a victim, however ridiculous and illogical it looks. Doesn’t it show that some people do not reason deeply at all? Is it the same weakness of the populations which “clever” politicians capitalise upon, making promises they have no plans of fulfilling, and even later denying that they made such promises? First, they deceive people into believing that they would fulfil the promises once they get voted into power and the people believe them. Then, when they cannot fulfil those promises, they claim that they never made them, that they were misinterpreted. The people, again, believe them. They create problems and blame their opponents. The people yet believe that they did not cause the problems but that the opposition did. They could pretend to be solving the problems they blamed on the opposition, and the people would again believe that they are doing what they claim to be doing. When they run out of denials and blames and excuses, they could create a problem as a distraction, to be seen to be busy solving a situation that arose inevitably. They people, yet, believe them!

All 419 fraud, whether in ruling gullible populations or making them part with their money (as a practice of the survival of the most clever in our time) assume that not many people could make use of their heads, and that one proof of this is thinking that your photograph is the real you hanging up there on the wall.

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