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Cloudy picture

Is technology changing the way we look at the past?

Cloudy picture

(iStock)

The accumulation of 20-plus years in the same house can be intimidating—not so much from the plastic bins stacked on garage shelves, but from the little stuff, the mementos that weep when you think about pitching them. Do you have boxes of old photographs under the bed or in the closet? Vacation pics from the Grand Canyon or that collection passed down from Great-Aunt Susan that never got labeled (who are these people)? As I was sorting through my last box of photos, and categorizing them to put in another box, it struck me that none of them were more recent than 2008. In fact, the ones that seemed most “recent” were from the ’90s.

I’ll bet most of us could say the same. It’s not that we haven’t been taking pictures. We’re taking more than ever, but they don’t end up in boxes or albums. 

Where they are relates to the steep drop in camera sales. It’s not just Eastman Kodak in trouble; it’s Canon, Nikon, Fuji, even Leica. Ten years ago, when I bought my last camera, those giants of the industry appeared to have successfully weathered the digital revolution. But worldwide sales since 2008 have fallen off a cliff: from 110 million units to 20 million. The steepest drop is in pocket-sized snapshot models, but high-end cameras have also taken a hit. Turns out, digital technology per se was not the problem. Smartphones were the problem. 

As consumers grabbed the latest iPhones and Androids, technology improved to make phone cameras better and better—and what they lacked in finesse, they more than made up in convenience. Meanwhile, social media made “sharing” easier and faster. Camera manufacturers couldn’t keep pace, because with technical change comes social change; in this case, not just in the way we take pictures, but in the way we use and even think about them.

That box of curly edged photos is a record of times past. The endlessly scrolling pictures on your phone are more like ongoing commentary. They are postcards sent from our daily travels, whether to Italy or to Starbucks. Though it’s cheap and easy to print them, we seldom do. They remain in the cloud, a monologue too crowded for reflection. Nothing is history; all is data.

That box of curly edged photos is a record of times past. The endlessly scrolling pictures on your phone are more like ongoing commentary.

A change in one area of common culture often reflects changes in another. To take just one example, Pearson Education, one of the world’s largest textbook publishers, recently announced its plans to digitize all its 1,500 titles and go digital-first with new titles. That doesn’t mean the end of hardcover texts (though that end may be in view), but a kind of academic livestreaming with the ability to revise continually. This may make sense for the evolving sciences. But historian Wilfred McClay sees trouble for his discipline: “Students will eventually be required to use—and institutions will be required to offer—the constantly updated texts, tethering students and schools exclusively to the publisher’s digital platform. George Orwell, please call the Ministry of Truth.”

History has been subject to revision ever since there was such a thing as history, and that’s not necessarily bad. New research can call old facts into question. Even new technology can supply valuable perspective, like the colorized and re-digitized World War I footage in Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. What McClay fears is not revisionism, but (quoting John Dos Passos) the “idiot delusion of the exceptional Now that blocks good thinking.” Organizing photos in an album requires time and thought; likewise organizing events in a pattern, or insights into a coherent philosophy or a reasoned argument. Technology that leapfrogs both time and thought can easily succumb to the latest wokeness.

We’ll keep taking pictures, storing them on phones, and sharing them on Instagram. But once in a while we might take the time to think about them, select a few, and organize them in an album to testify to life and its meaning. Sometime the “Now” is truly exceptional, and sometimes it’s just an “idiot delusion.” Our children may thank us for knowing the difference.