Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Category archive: Computer graphics
Well, it won’t have taken you long. But even so, impressive, I think.
The photograph is one of these.
I seem to recall that, in Total Recall (I wish), people’s homes were decorated not with static pictures, but with images that constantly changed. We are definitely heading that way.
My computer screen now was amazingly cheap, and is by some distance the best one I’ve ever had, a trend that doesn’t look like stopping at all. Michael J, I know, has two screens attached to his computer, rather than just the one like me. That too is, I should imagine, a growing trend. I might do that myself one day soon, if I ever get round to that remodel of my desk that I keep promising myself. (At present it’s a total shambles, having been designed for one of those horrible pregnant out the back TV sets, and what is worse, one that I hated and immediately swapped for a better pregnant out the back TV, now long gone, of course.)
So, how long before the typical householder connects his computer to about a dozen different screens, scattered around his home. I’ll never do this, because I have books. Remember those. Actually that isn’t very funny, because of course books still abound. This is because, as Alex Singleton was saying to me only yesterday, the business of reading books off of electronic screens has yet to be perfected. A few years back, screens to read books with were excellent, because they were built for that and nothing else. But the arrival of the smartphone, tablet, phablet, thingy has actually caused book reading on the move to get worse, because there’s a trade-off now being made between reading perfectly, and thingy screen perfection. What you want is a button on all those thingies, to switch to a perfect reading screen when you need that.
An interesting moment will happen when screens are pretty much flawless at doing reproductions of great paintings.
Or to put all this another way, when people look back on our time, they’ll not be impressed with our screens, any more than I am impressed by the screens we had thirty years ago.
And with pictures of the quality of the one above, or of all the others in the set I found it in, being so abundantly available on the www, there’ll never be any shortage of stuff to show on all our screens. And that’s not even to mention the ones we take ourselves.
No, this is not a plan to reduce the height of Battersea Power Station until it is mostly only its chimneys. This is a roof garden:
A slice of urban heaven, if that picture is anything to go by. Alas, it may not be, and most of us may never be allowed up there to check.
It looks like London is going to get itself some Frank Gehry wobbliness.
Yes, here is another strange science-fictional artificial landscape, photographed by me a few days ago, to set beside this strange artificial landscape, photoed by me last August:
Both these images were contrived in the same way with the same raw material. But what is the raw material and what did I do with it?
Incoming from Sam Bowman in the form of an email, dated March 6th, entitled “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism - an apologia”:
Thanks for mentioning my Libertarian Home talk on Samizdata. I look forward to seeing you tonight if you can make it.
“Tonight” was March 6th (Simon Gibbs introductory spiel about Sam and his talk here), when Sam gave his talk at the Rose and Crown. This is not yet available on video, but it presumably soon will be, because as always at these Libertarian Home Rose and Crown talks, a video camera was in action. On the right is a photo that Sam took of me and him with his mobile, after he had given his talk.
And thanks for coming on Monday!
That was an ASI event, about whether prison works. (Answer, with all kinds of reservations: yes.)
I typed out quite a long email to you but decided against it, because I figured none of it would be new to you.
Wrong. Now that my hair is mostly grey and I no longer say everything I am thinking, other libertarians seem to assume that I now know everything that there is to be known, and because I own lots of books that I have read everything that there is to be read, about libertarianism. None of this is true. I do not read and have not read nearly as much as I have time to read and have had time to read. I regret that Sam didn’t preserve this longer email.
Having said that, since it’s something we’re both interested in I thought I’d try to outline my position a bit more briefly:
Excellent. I asked Sam, quite a long time ago now, if he minded me recycling what follows in a posting, and maybe then sticking bits of it up at Samizdata. No, he said, post away. So here it is:
I still hate the term ‘social justice’ (Hayek did a real number on me), and philosophically I’m not on board with the Rawlsian view of ethics. My moral position is preference utilitarianism – that people getting what they want is what’s good. Having said that, practically I think that ethical consequentialists and believers in ‘social justice’ are in basically the same position: both think that improving the welfare of the poor is a high priority.
I think it makes sense to treat libertarianism as being about means, not ends. Most political positions claim that they’re good because they will make people’s lives easier, happier, etc. (There are some exceptions of course.) I think many people make the error of forgetting that the world is complex, so they assume that differences of opinion about politics must be down to differences of opinion about what sort of world we want.
People sometimes also try to waterproof their beliefs by attaching moral claims to empirical arguments – eg, a supporter of the minimum wage, presented with strong arguments that undermine their empirical claims, may fall back on the argument that it’s just indecent for people to earn below £x/hour, and a decent society should simply not allow that, consequences be damned. Of course we libertarians often do this too – presented with strong arguments in favour of the minimum wage we may fall back on the claim that it’s just wrong to interfere with private contracts between adults. I think there’s some merit to both these claims (much more so the latter, obviously) but they shouldn’t be treated as unbreakable absolutes. If they were, were the earlier, empirical arguments just rhetoric?
So you can boil my position down to this: if I was convinced that free markets and a high degree of individual liberty were not the best way of allowing people to get what they want, I wouldn’t support them. My libertarianism/liberalism is entirely contingent on empirical beliefs I have about the world.
I make explicit the fact that I’d be relaxed about redistribution of wealth from rich to poor if I thought it led to good outcomes, and indeed I think the libertarian empirical case is much stronger on regulation of people’s lives (in the broadest sense) and commerce than it is on wealth redistribution. I also think that it’s where we have the most original things to say.
How this makes me any different to people like Milton Friedman and FA Hayek I am not sure, given that both were also explicitly supportive of wealth/income redistribution. Of course, any consequentialist libertarian would have to concede that, at least in theory, they would be open to the idea of redistribution.
Some emails, rather like some comments, can have particular expressive merit. Because people are relaxed rather than mounted self-consciously on their official high horses, so to speak, they often communicate in this more informal circumstance with particular eloquence. So, my particular thanks to Sam for allowing me to publish this. More of his many thoughts here, although you may have to scroll your way past a huge photo of Sam in front of a brick wall. (Odd. Did anyone else have this problem?) I recommend doing this.
Yesterday I did something that is often rather hard. I photographed some wind. Any idiot who can video (a category of idiot that does not really include me – although I hope to be changing that Real Soon Now) can video wind. You video trees swaying. Roof clutter swaying. Things being blown around. Whatever. But how do you photo the wind? Answer you photo its static dislocative (my word processor says that isn’t a word – it is now) effects. But these effects are rather rare. What you need is something like sails on boats, or some kind of urban substitute for sails on boats. Yesterday, when on my way to Victoria Station, I encountered just such a substitute.
Did you detect a whiff of verbosity in the first paragraph above? If so you would, I think, be right. This is because I was writing verbiage to go next to a big vertical picture, verbiage that needs to be enough to prevent the picture impinging upon the previous posting.
The first two paragraphs of the above verbiage did not suffice to accomplish this task. Hence these final five paragraphs.
And hence the fact that they are five paragraphs rather than one.
I was just making sure.
I can’t tell until I post it, whether this problem has been sorted, so I am now over-reacting.
A while back I did a posting about an acquaintance of mine, called Victor. He had been attending my Last Friday meetings, but I was forgetting that his name is Victor. So, I did a posting, with a picture of him next to a picture of a Handley Page Victor airplane, to make me remember that his name is Victor. It worked.
So now, I am doing another posting to solve another name problem I have long had, which is knowing the difference between trendy Brit Architect Norman Foster and trendy Brit Architect Richard Rogers.
So here they are. Norman Foster on the left, …:
I am well aware that these two men look quite different. But when looking at one, in a photo or on the telly, I am unable to imagine the other, or know which is the one I am looking at, Richard Rogers or Norman Foster.
Foster first. Ffffffff. Rogers on the right. Rrrrrrrr. And I’ve given this posting a title which will enable me to get back to it easily, if ever there is more confusion in the future.
If this doesn’t work, sterner measures may be needed, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
However, when I copied and pasted it into my word processor, it started out looking like this:
How did that happen?
In my youth, I would have panicked, but with age comes experience, and faced with dramas like this, I now do nothing, and then do the sensible thing. Which in this case was to try reformatting in “Default Formatting”, which at once turned it into normal writing again.
Presumably, my copying had picked up on some weird Bonzo Dooh Dah Dog Band font of some kind. But how?
I thought it must be that one called “Dingbats”, but it turns out it was “Open Symbol”, I think. How do the above hieroglyphics get called Open Symbol? (I was going to put higher oh gliffix, and now I have, but in the age of google and its “did you mean …?” feature) there is no excuse for such behaviour.)
Is there a rock band called the Dingbats? Of course there is! Is there a rock band called the Open Symbols? My googling says not. Shame.
On the right is a fake-up of a new building, for another of those Mega Mega Companies that you have never heard of, until they suddenly construct themselves a new Big Thing in the middle of London. Construction is expected to start next year. As you can see, it will be part of what is now the Gherkin/Cheesegrater cluster.
Also a potential part of that cluster, and potentially the biggest Big Thing in it, the Helter Skelter (aka “The Pinnacle"), now looks like it will soon resume being built as well, as already noted here.
Of the Helter Skelter’s rise from the dead, Londonist says:
The optimism is driven by an improving economy and (believe it or not) a growing shortage of suitable office space in the financial centre.
It’s like 2008 never happened.
Guided by the excellent advice of my mostly silently lurking commentariat ("Friday Night Smoke” in particular has a way of supplying extraordinarily welcome and pertinent comments, with gaps between them of several months), I got myself this wonderful new computer screen. The main feature of this new screen is that, thanks to that advice, and unlike my previous computer screen, it is IPS.
IPS (In-plane switching) is a screen technology used for liquid crystal displays (LCDs). It was designed to solve the main limitations of the twisted nematic field effect (TN) matrix LCDs in the late 1980s, such as relatively high response time, strong viewing angle dependence and low-quality color reproduction. In-plane switching involves arranging and switching the molecules of the liquid crystal (LC) layer between the glass substrates. This is done in a plane parallel to these glass plates.
My IPS screen is at its considerable best, no matter what direction I look at it from. Unlike the earlier screen, where I needed to be directly in front of it to get a good result.
But, my old computer screen, just like the new one, was on my desk, right in front of me. So, although my new computer screen was a great improvement, I did not get the full force of the improvement, massive though that improvement was.
But now, when I look at my television, and then back at my computer screen. My television is not at the same level as my eyes. It is higher up than that. Now, next to my super new computer screen, it seems like everything on my television is permanently in the dark:
At first I just wanted to take and show that one picture. But then I thought, what if I photo the television screen from right in front of it, higher up? So, I raised my camera above my head, using its tilting screen to go on seeing the picture, and here is what suddenly happened:
Suddenly Charlie Sheen, one of Two And A Half Men (before Charlie Sheen got fired and his character killed), is suddenly to be seen, as clear as day.
Actually, in the bit linked to, Charlie Sheen’s exit from the show is described thus:
Even though Sheen’s antics involving Two and a Half Men have been continuously reported in every news medium, it’ll be interesting to see how violently killing off one of the series’ focal characters will be received by its viewers. While it can be said that television viewers are extremely loyal, the overt decimation of Charlie Harper may leave a bad taste in the mouth of those looking to watch an actual comedy series.
The word “decimate” is now routinely misused, to the point where it has pretty much lost its original meaning, of one in ten Roman soldiers in a legion being executed, when that legion misbehaved. But I have never before heard of an individual being “decimated”, overtly or otherwise. But I digress.
The point is, now I want a new television screen. There is nothing “wrong” with the old screen. It works as advertised. I just don’t like it any more.
Late last year I decided that since my blogging software puts a small gap between lines of photos automatically, I would put a small gap between pictures horizontally. This was easily done, with the html clutch of symbols to say space, which I do not know how to reproduce here, because all they do is create a space.
So anyway, I worked away at the slightly reduced sizes that pictures would need to be to fit in sideways, carefully checking that what looked like the final answer to two side by side, three in a horizontal row, four in a horizontal row, etc., would all work.
Unfortunately, I did not give sufficient attention to the tool which magnifies or diminishes my blog from its basic 100 percent size. The problem, I later discovered was the 110 percent setting.
In this posting from last December, for instance, it produced results like this:
Yesterday I went back through my archives, with the magnification set at 110 percent, and reduced the size of every little picture by one pixel, after which everything fitted, for all percentage reductions or increases. Luckily I have not been doing this horizontal space thing that long.
You want to look your best, and all now should be well:
There has to be an easier way to do this kind of thing, but with me and blogging, in fact with me and computers generally, whatever I can get to work is what I do. Like a rat in a maze, once I have found a way around, however circuitous, which nevertheless gets me there, that is the way I go from then on.
Such are the little dramas of blogging.
Much humour is to be had by modifying a cliché, and something similar applies to photography. The Eiffel Tower features in many photos. The chimney pots of Paris, not quite so much.
That was taken on February 2nd 2012, from the Pompidou Centre.
I an still stunned by how brilliant my new, cheap computer screen is. Pictures like this one become hugely better than I remember them first time around, and wandering around in my photo-archives is more enjoyable than ever before.
Here is another picture taken at the same time from the same place. Also lots of chimneys, though you have to look a bit more closely this time. But in the background there, La Défense, Paris’s Big New Thing district.
What that big dome is in the foreground, I don’t know. I was staying with Antoine Clarke when I took these snaps, and in fact he was up there with me when I took these. Maybe he can tell us what that big curvey thing is. When you take pictures of some big thing, there is a presumption that you do care what it is, but personally, in this case, I don’t really care. There are more than enough mysterious buildings like this in London to keep me wondering, without me fretting about mystery buildings in Paris. But maybe you would like to know.
And yes, I am almost certain that is a crane.
One other thing. This new screen has me thinking that maybe the size of pictures I am putting up here may be a bit wrong. When you click on the above two, you’ll get them at 1200x900, which is bigger than I usually do, because now my own screen is bigger. Is this either too big, or too small? I’d welcome anyone’s opinion on that.
Yes. Following the comments on this earlier posting, mentioning the magic acronym “IPS” (totally new to me until now – what it means is colours don’t change with the viewing angle), I went to PC World and bought one of these, the excitingly named LG 23EA63, off one of PC World’s shelves. This screen is probably not nearly as good as the one Michael J recommended, or as any of the others talked about in those comments, but it had the virtue of costing only £130. For something like a screen, that is nearly petty cash for me, so I would not object to later getting an even better screen, chosen with greater care and deliberation, after such screens have got even better than they are now.
The thing was, I really needed an okay screen, now. Not a brilliant screen in ten days. An okay one straight away. This is why God invented shops. I considered Argos (there is one a walk away from me), but decided that I would get more (as in: some) help if I went to PC World. So it proved. Recent experience of the customer service in PC World Tottenham Court Road has been very good, so that’s where I went.
I noticed on my way home that further thought has been given to packaging since I last bought something of this kind. The box I took it home in had a convenient handle to hold, and was as thin as ingenuity could make it. Such things are not trivial. Well, maybe they are, but they are very nice. As usual capitalism obsesses about the details, and constantly improves them.
Getting back to how the screen works, this screen is only “okay” rather than “brilliant” when compared to truly brilliant screens costing significantly more. For me, this one is already brilliant, a massive step up compared to the horrible screen I have been using for the last few weeks. All my photos now look hugely better than they just did, and, I am almost certain, better than they ever did, even on my earlier Samsung screen. This, in other words, is the best screen I’ve ever had.
And on further reflection - reflection, by the way, being something that my new screen carefully refrains from doing – I find myself thinking of another reason why I am glad to have bought what I take to be a pretty bog standard screen, rather than the slightly grander ones being talked about by my helpful commenters. This blog depends a lot on my photographs, and I consider it a great advantage for me to be using a screen probably a lot like the sorts of screens most viewers of this blog will be using. How my photos look on this new screen of mine is probably how the majority of my viewers will likewise see them. A better screen might have got me rhapsodising about effects that many viewers might not themselves be getting.
Anyway, whether right about all this or deluded, and given that time may eventually tell rather differently, the way time so often does, I am now very happy.
In New York, when 432 Park Avenue has been built, the views from it, from 1271 feet up, will look like this.
The City of London is also known as the Square Mile, so I have cropped out the City with the automatic square tool in my photoshop clone.
The people who concocted this rather commonplace piece of visual extrapolation have assumed that there will be no outbursts of history to complicate the picture. This may be wrong, but it makes a nice change from a few years back, when people were faking up pictures of London under thirty feet of sea water. That kind of thing is not just not believed any more. It is not even being thought about any more. It never occurred to any of the people now spreading this story around, about London building lots of new towers, to mention Rising Sea Levels, Climate Chaos, etc. etc., blah blah blah.
This is often how big arguments are won and lost. In silence. The people talking tripe stop talking it. And the people who have been explaining why the tripe is the tripe that it is, and have been in the habit of denouncing it in loud voices, no longer have any tripe to denounce. So they also go quiet.
A few weeks ago my NumberOneDoublePlusGood Computer screen, a Samsung, conked out. I have a cheap (i.e. sixty quid) back-up screen, which I am now using, but I don’t like it. Worse, I don’t trust it. I fear that, because of how this screen behaves, that I may as a result be misediting photos, so to speak, making them the wrong colour or the wrong level of brightness.
So, does anyone reading this have any ideas about what sort of screen I should buy to replace this screen? I’m thinking, quite big, quite cheap, and good for photos in particular and for computer mucking about by an amateur in general. I’ve been out of this market for a year or two, and would love some guidance. What I am looking for is that sweet price/quality spot at the top end of cheap. The best piece of kit that you can get for not silly money. I am not interested in spending a thousand quid getting something even more wonderful than wonderful, just two hundred quid on something wonderful. Thoughts anyone?
As I said in the previous post, my talk about digital photography at Christian Michel’s last night went well, in the sense of me feeling it went well, and it seeming to be well received. I occasionally put my sheets of paper down and extemporised upon some point I was making, but mostly, this was it. No links, no photos, no extras. (They may come later, I hope, but I promise nothing.) Just the bare text that I read out, complete with all the errors of grammar and spelling, of fact and interpretation, that may or may not be present:
I have given several talks in this 6/20 series, but until now this has been because I have had both questions and answers to offer to the assembled throng. I have had theses to present, clutches of facts to pass on.
This time I don’t know the answers. I merely want to know the answers. What is the impact of digital photography? What is it doing to us? Since fixing this subject matter with Christian I have made, I think, some progress in arriving at answers, but only some. Tonight I expect to make further progress.
Luckily, for my purposes, we have all been alive throughout the period of digital photography’s mass use, and have observed it in action, even if we may not always have wanted to. Has anyone here not taken a digital photo? Just as I thought. (It actually says that here. And this.)
I will start my remarks by quoting a remark made by an American whom I overheard about fifty years ago, on the Acropolis in Athens, the place where what is left of the Parthenon stands. I was there trying to do some sketching, a skill I never got any good at but spent a few years attempting. He was doing pictures with his seriously pre-digital camera. As soon as he had finished photoing, he wanted to leave, presumably to get to his next photoing place. But his family were enjoying the Acropolis in the morning sunshine. Said he to his family: “Come one, come on! We’ll look at it when we get home!”
This outburst captures a great deal about what people object to about digital photography, but it also reminds us that photography, by Everyman as opposed to by professionals, is nothing new. Digital photography is partly just the intensification of a process that has been in place in our culture for well over a century. But it is more than that.
Even setting the scale of the phenomenon aside, digital photography is different from the old sort. It was first applied to the real world by NASA, to solve the problem not so much of taking photographs, but of communicating them, from robot spaceships back to earth, without the vast additional expense of getting the robots to fly back home themselves, like World War 2 photo reconnaissance planes. Central to digital photography is that digital photographs are easy to communicate. It is no accident that digital photography has only now become ubiquitous in our culture with the arrival and mass success of the smartphone, which can, just like those first NASA digital space cameras, both take pictures and communicate them. When we speak of “digital photography”, what are the boundaries of the concept? The “digital” bit means that this is photography that goes beyond merely being photography in the sense experienced by that American on the Acropolis all those years ago. Digital photography, as computer insiders have long understood, is only a part of a bigger multi-media picture, and that was always the idea.
One of the ways I have prepared for this talk has simply been to talk with people, both friends and people I just happened recently to bump into. How do you use digital photography? What do you think its impact is?
In the answers I have so far garnered, a number of themes recurred.
Only a tiny few did not use digital photography at all. In one case, this was because he had suffered a particularly painful digital camera robbery, and he just couldn’t make himself resume the activity. All the others who refrained were old, little-rolls-of-film photography devotees. They loved this technology and consequently hated the successor technology that had destroyed the object of their love, in rather the same way that some devotees of vinyl gramophone records hate CDs. This was exceptional.
In all other cases, my respondents used digital cameras with enthusiasm, and often downright joy. They used them in some or all of the regular ways, to take holiday snaps, to take photos at weddings, family reunions, parties, and so on. But another recurring theme also asserted itself. This is the digital photography killer app, different for each person. Everyone does particular work, has particular hobbies, and in almost every case of such a personal angle on the world, digital photography was making a contribution, to their effectiveness or their pleasure or both.
A fine example is a killer app described to me by a gentleman at the previous 6/20 meeting, on the 6th of this month. He regretted being unable to attend tonight, but I will try to recall what he said, briefly but accurately. Basically, he is a butterfly fan. He likes to scrutinise the patterns on the wings of butterflies, which, to him, are of extraordinary beauty and interest. I am sure you can understand.
But he has a problem. Butterflies are notoriously unwilling to stay for any length of time in the same spot. Their wings will often repay long minutes and ever hours of attention, but your typical butterfly only hangs around for a few seconds and certainly cannot be relied upon to stay longer. No problem. Snap. He can then scrutinise the beautiful creature’s wings at his leisure. He can, you might say, look at it when he gets home.
It’s an aside, but I recall the days when butterfly “lovers” could only contemplate the objects of their devotion for any big length of time by killing them. They used to catch butterflies in nets, and pin them onto boards and keep vast collections of dead butterflies in trays with glass tops. I remember such gruesome collections, perpetrated by male relatives long dead, in my grandmother’s house when as a boy I visited her vast home. That the weapon of choice of an ever higher proportion of human hunters of animals – entirely so in the case of rare or endangered animals - is now the camera, rather than the rifle, is surely a step in the right direction for civilisation. Taken literally, my butterfly man’s use of digital photography to immobilise his butterflies was the very opposite of a killer app. It was a let them live app.
Other killer apps spring to mind. My own digital camera killer app, the app that got me started with digital photography, was contriving computer printable photographs of authors whose writings I was engaged in publishing, for the Libertarian Alliance. One of these authors was Christian, as I recall. About fifteen short years ago, using desktop computers to print photographs was as slow and unwieldy as using computers to display photographs on computer screens is easy now, but I was very happy about that. I could do it. All I needed was quite crude black and white pictures, which were not nearly as slow as better pictures would have been to play with, and anyway, all that slowness deterred the competition and made my products look far less domestic in origin than they really were. Later, I used and still use pictures of prominent libertarian personalities to spice up my blog postings, and to boost their prestige and raise their morale.
Intrinsic to digital photography is that digital photographs can be easily processes. This was also why NASA was so keen to develop this technology. Remember those videos of a hopeless image being slowly but miraculously transformed into a miraculous image. I used to muck about with my author photos to make them more photocopier-friendly. Many of my interviewees have talked about how they create images, rather than merely snap them.
Tonight I hope that I will hear of many more killer apps.
One of my favourite digital photography apps is the photographing of other information. An example of this was told to me by Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home, who works in computers, in some capacity or other. He and his colleagues, in the course of their collective deliberations, are in the habit of covering white boards with verbiage and diagrams and such, often including yellow stick-on notes with further cleverness. And, before the meeting adjourns, photos of all this cleverness are taken, for later pondering. Simon and his colleagues are definitely not the only ones behaving like this, and nor are they the only ones who photograph the resulting writing on the wall, so to speak, for later reflection. A merely temporary piece of scribbled brainstorming becomes as permanent as anyone wants it to be. To
Time was when the only people in the world using small cameras to photograph complicated verbiage and complicated diagrams were spies in movies, and presumably spies for real. And to anyone who says that photocopiers have been around for decades, I say, true, but good luck photocopying a vertical surface several yards wide. Digital cameras are actually now better than photocopiers were. Notice, however, that this was not nearly so true just a few years back, because cheap digital cameras couldn’t then handle the detail. Now, they can.
The more people tell me about their personal, particular, digital photography apps, and about the other apps they have heard about other people using, the more I think that digital photography is like literacy, something that is capable of contributing, always significantly and often crucially, to pretty much any project you care to think of. Of course it has to be done right, used intelligently. Any tool can be misused, applied stupidly or excessively. But seriously, is there any area of work or play to which a bit of shrewdly deployed digital photography can not now contribute?
The pleasure that people get from digital photography is obvious, and often highly visible. But the impact of digital photography on work is just as dramatic if not more so, which is one of the reasons I so like Simon’s photoed brainstorm boards. Where would internet selling be without digital photography? How many pictures are taken per day by the construction industry, to record progress, satisfactory or not? Think of all those Russian cars with their permanently active video cameras, ready to record accidents, and incidentally recording meteor strikes for the evening news.
As for the more conventional uses of digital cameras, to take snaps when on holiday or out of hours when on business trips, at weddings and at funerals and school reunions and at Christmas, well, hear this. Several people volunteered that, were they to suffer a computer calamity and lose all their data, the only losses that would really hurt – really, really hurt – would be the loss of their photo archives.
There were grumbles. Just now a big grumble about digital photography, if my recent conversations are anything to go by, concerns people using tablet cameras (a very recent arrival on the scene) to make bad video recordings of live events, thereby spoiling the view for everyone else. This does not mean that it is silly to photograph Big Ben using a tablet, as I myself have had the pleasure of photographing many people do. On the contrary, a tablet is a very sensible way to take photographs or make videos, because with such a big screen, you know, as never before, the kind of picture you are going to get. But yes, tablets can be used in a way that is annoying to others. More fundamentally, what is the point of going to an event, and then not experiencing it, on account of instead making a bad video of it?
More generally, the grumble is that digital photography does not so much record experience as postpone, diminish, and not infrequently utterly destroy it.
But such grumbles are not new. I would say that they are a consequence of the fact that technology is always now developing, which means that at any particular moment mistakes are going to be made. We are all familiar with the nouveau riche phenomenon, which is people who need to learn how to handle money in quantities they are not familiar with, and in particular not to spend it all. Constantly progressing technology gives rise to a similar effect. At any given technological moment there will be people overdoing it with this or that latest piece of kit. Just now tablet computers are being overused at public events. Suddenly people can record absolutely everything, and some do, excessively and inconsiderately, not even maximising their own pleasure let alone anyone else’s. In the eighties, you may recall, the complaints concerned mobile phones, being misused in trains by people shouting endless gushes of banality into them, concerning the progress of their train journeys, in a way that enraged other passengers. But people learned not to behave like this. The tablet wavers at concerts will likewise learn to mend their manners.
As for the claim that photography is an alternative to visual experience rather than an enhancement of it, my own personal experience has been the exact opposite. I have seen far more of London in the last decade than I would have done had there been no digital photography. And thanks to my photo archives I remember far more of what I have seen, with past photos often vividly triggering past visual memories that would otherwise have gone utterly. My most vivid visual recollection of 2013 was seeing, in the far distance, the first few giant cranes of London Gateway, London’s new container port now being constructed on the north bank of the Thames Estuary. They reminded me of my first sighting of Chartres Cathedral from a similarly great distance, which I spied on one of my sketching expeditions in my teens. Had there been no digital photography, I would never have gone anywhere near London Gateway, let alone now have had such vivid mental (as well as digital) pictures of it. My experience is that digital photography is not a substitute for seeing things. It is an intensification of seeing things.
And as I often like to joke, my camera has better eyesight than I do. One of the most pleasurable moments of my photographic expeditions is when I get home, and fling my pictures up on my big home computer screen. I see all sorts of things in them that I did not see at the time, as perhaps my friend Simon sees in his photos of meetings notes. Just as the butterfly man does not have time to see everything he can later see in his photos, I do not have the eyesight to see what I later see in my photos. Ah, the joy of looking at them when I get home! And yes, I am a bit nouveau riche about digital photography myself. Guilty as charged. But far better to be nouveau riche than not riche at all!
It is because of all the varied pleasures to be had from digital photography that it has become such a mass enthusiasm. All mass enthusiasms give rise to grumbles and sneers, from people who accentuate the negative and prefer to ignore or take for granted the positive.
Some negatives, concerning the impact of digital photography and the new media in general on old school journalism have been much complained about, mostly by old school photographers and journalists. Daily news has been replaced by instant news. Boo. Many people prefer looking at each other’s bad photos instead of looking at good photos taken by the old school photographer complaining in his old school newspaper article. I will not spend time on these grumbles, if only because so many others have done nothing but write about such things. Suffice it to say that the news hasn’t ended. The means of communicating it has changed a lot lately, just as it always has.
One of the many plusses of digital photography is that, by supplying an endless stream of humdrum photos of humdrum people doing humdrum things all over the world, it corrects the impression given by the news that the rest of the world is a crazy place inhabited only by crazy people doing crazily newsworthy and disastrous things, all the time.
One of the bigger negatives associated with digital photography is surely surveillance, both by big organisations like governments and the owners of shopping centres and amusement parks and transport networks, and by individuals, just taking photos, moving or still, of friends or strangers, and then internetting them. And of course the latter activity, as Edward Snowden has now confirmed, feeds massively back into the former one. There was a recent 6/20 talk devoted entirely to this topic a few months back, just before it suddenly became a hot news story.
Surveillance has caught on in the rich world, I am convinced, because it really does do a lot of good, in deterring crime and in supplying evidence for prosecution in crimes that it fails to deter. It also, surely, really does diminish speedy and dangerous driving. The question is not whether there are any benefits to mass surveillance, but whether those benefits are worth the potentially horrible costs. It has been much discussed that Britain has the largest population of surveillance cameras in the world, per head of population being surveilled. I think that one reason for this is that in Britain we have (again: many of my libertarian friends will be disgusted by this claim) some of the – quite possibly the - most trusted public officials in the world. (If my libertarian friends would prefer “least distrusted”, I am happy to let them have that concession, but only that.) Trust in public officials everywhere is probably in decline, including in Britain, but in Britain it still remains very high. There is a lot of ruin in a civil service that started out genuinely civil. Thus, the costs in Britain of public surveillance are considered less burdensome than elsewhere, and the cameras escalate, both in number and in effectiveness.
The Guardian’s Laurie Penny agrees with me. Unlike me, Penny travels a lot to many other cities besides London, and she notes that London – especially London’s trains – are now remarkably free of graffiti, compared to other major cities, and in particular compared to the trains in other major cities. She gives surveillance cameras much of the credit for this. Which makes sense to me. Although, as usual, we have to say that just shoving up surveillance cameras and not paying any attention to their output is utterly insufficient. As with all other digital camera apps, surveillance cameras can be deployed both excessively and incompetently. Cameras only work if part of an effective (and uncorrupt) system of crime prosecution and prevention.
But what if the definition of crime gets expanded? What if British public officials are now becoming lest trustworthy so fast that the British public, now so supportive of surveillance cameras, later changes its mind?
And what else are all these surveillance cameras already deterring? Penny speculates that we have entered a new age of self-censorship, of stuffy social decorum, of watching what we say to anyhone, not unlike the one that was abandoned in the 1960s by the Beatles generation, i.e. mine. I think I agree about that also, although another big part of the reason for that is that the economy is not what it was. Would young people now fret about pictures of themselves behaving rowdily in the street, or for that matter at private parties where privately owned smartphones are hoovering up pictures and showing the worst of them to the whole world, if jobs for young people were as easy to come by as they were in the 1960s? Personally I don’t think such pictures are much of a reason to not employ someone, but they do make a fine excuse if you are looking for one.
Going back to that graffiti that Laurie Penny observes the lack of in London (and she is rather regretful), I think I observe another impact of digital photography on graffiti, at any rate in London. Yes, surveillance cameras may have diminished the quantity of low grade graffiti, the sort that is hardly better than dogs pissing on lamp-posts to mark their territory, and which is done – or feels as if it is done - to maximise annoyance to property owners, and urban dread in the minds of more sober and timid and elderly citizens like me. But at the top end of the graffiti food chain, at any rate to my eye, things have greatly improved. The quality of the best graffiti art is now dramatically better than it has ever been before, so much so that art galleries now fall over themselves to sign up street artists, instead of patronising the more usual sort of artists, who are now being left behind by their more populist competitors with their defiantly realistic and demagogicly communicative imagery.
Digital photography is definitely part of this story, in fact I think somewhere in my photo archives I have pictures to prove it, of street artists photoing their works in progress. Think about it. If you have just done an elaborate work of street art, in a place where you know from experience you are allowed to do it, and won’t be prosecuted for doing it, and you can immediately record an approximate likeness of it for posterity, that has to gain you more kudos and social media attention than if you couldn’t do that. Street art is all too temporary, replaced almost at once by more street art. A digital photo of a piece of street art is far more permanent. Does anyone here present think that digital photography means less high quality street art?
The weekend before last, there was another art event in London which surely also owed much to digital photography, which was a festival of ice sculpture. How demoralising it must be to sculpt a masterpiece, and then immediately watch it melt, in London’s demoralisingly moderate “winter” climate. How much more fun if you can photo it in all its temporary glory. That fact has resulted in a deluge of photos in recent years of such ice sculptures, and that results (it certainly did the weekend before last) in a whole new mob of people who have never seen such a thing before (because before, nobody in London bothered) assembling themselves to witness these miraculously kitchy objects. And to photo them with their cameras. I actually went to this ice sculpture exhibition, which was held in Docklands. I had hoped for a decent number of ice sculptures and a decent number of photographers, some of them the artists themselves, for me to photograph photoing them. Alas for my hopes. I only got as far as photoing the truly gigantic and (to me) totally offputting queue of people who had all had the same idea about where to go as me.
I’ll end this very soon. Melting sculptures and excessive crowds of people wanting to see them and to photo them may seem like a pretty downbeat conclusion to this talk, but actually it isn’t really my conclusion. That will come when I finally sort out in mind what that is. Meanwhile, I am greatly enjoying the process. Talking with people about how they use digital photography, and about what they think its impact has been and is and will be, as opposed to merely reading about this on the internet and musing about how I use digital photography myself, has also been, quite aside (I hope) from being somewhat informative, great fun. Asking someone how they use digital photography is a great conversation starter, I have found. And I intend to continue with my investigations.
If forced to offer a conclusion now, I think I would describe digital photography historically, by talking about how future historians might choose to describe the little episode of technological history that we happen to be living through. And I think, like me, that they will emphasise the multi-media nature of digital photography, the way that it operates in combination with other methods of information storage and communication. When will they date the beginning of this story? Perhaps a date they will mention is May 11th 1844, which was the day when the first Morse Code message was transmitted between two different cities, Washington and Baltimore.
Or, they may go back to the origins of the printing press, or even of literacy, or even of talking itself. I have already emphasised the way that digital photography, among many other things, adds a dose of turbo-charging to old fashioned writing, by photographing it. For this is a story with no very fixed moment of beginning, and as of now there is no end in sight. It is a story of the gradual and accelerating increase in the power of us humans to interact with our world, to remember things, and to communicate things. In almost no time, from the evolutionary point of view, we have gone from creatures who struggled to make noises that communicated different kinds of danger to the tribe, to creatures who may very soon be making elaborate objects simply by thinking about them and emitting telepathic waves to magic machines, telepathy being a word I used in the title of a recent blog posting about the kinds of things I would be talking about this evening. Future historians will talk of shared experience, and gaze at our absurdly flat photographs, perhaps on an antique “computer screen”, with the same impressed but slightly patronising amusement and bemusement that we now bestow upon stained glass windows.
But enough. Thanks for listening, and please tell me more.