Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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- An alien robot playing the cymbals and paps
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Category archive: Social Media
Part of getting old (new category here – I still have a lot of categorising to do so bear with me on that) is that you just forget to do things, even things that you like. Thus, I have recently been forgetting to read Anton Howes. Today I remembered, and started reading, in particular, this posting, which is most recent as of now.
Uber isn’t a taxi company; it is a market. It provides a trust-based platform made up of assurances and ratings in order to let anyone ask “Can I have a ride? / Want a ride?” without sounding creepy.
I will now read the whole thing.
I am probably going to start doing Twitter, quite soon, years after everyone else. Does anyone have any advice about that? About whether, and if so about how?
Frank J has advice to offer about why you should do it:
What is the purpose of writing? Did you say to share your thoughts? To influence? To educate? To entertain? To conjure made-up worlds and share them with others?
Well, that’s all nonsense. The purpose of writing is to demonstrate to everyone how clever you are.
Here is a frightful warning about how a tweet can ruin your life. I now think I probably don’t have that much of a life to ruin, but perhaps Twitter will make me soon look back on my life now with desperate longing for a lost golden age.
My regular readers probably have a pretty good idea of what I might or might not use Twitter to do. Any thoughts? Or warnings? Dos? Don’ts? What I did rights? What I did wrongs? Etc.
One of the better kept secrets of the popular entertainment industry of the modern world is how very good certain people are at faking reality, with quite small but very well made models. Thoughtless people say they can always spot such fakery. But the truth is that they only spot what they spot. What they don’t spot, they don’t spot. Obvious, if you think about it. The same principle applies to things like men wearing wigs. We can only see them when they are done badly.
So, I’m guessing that not everyone in Hollywood will be pleased about the internet presence of this guy, who contrives pictures like this ...:
… by doing this:
I found out about Michael Paul Smith from this Colossal posting, which is also where I got the above photos.
Much of the success of such fakery is to do with the camera being in the right place. In particular, it needs to be low enough to see things from the same angle that a human would see them if the scene was real.
I remember first working this out when, as a kid, I went through a model railway magazine phase, a craze I caught from my best friend just a few doors away in Harvest Road, Englefield Green. Most of the pictures in those magazines were obviously of models, but this was not because the models were always badly made. It was because the camera was looking down on the scene, just as you do when you are looking at a model. On the few occasions when the photographer would take the trouble to get his camera at real eye level, so to speak, it was amazing how realistic everything could suddenly look.
By the same token, and being only an occasional flyer, I have never yet tired of the thrill of looking down at the ground, preferably at built-up areas, from an airplane in the process of taking off or landing. Everything looks like toys. Really, really well made toys. Your frequent flyers have got used to the idea that this is really just boring old reality, seen from above. But to me, what I see from an airplane is something totally different from reality. It is an entire world, painstakingly faked in miniature, for my personal entertainment.
Pride of place in David Thompson’s ephemera today, and pride of place this Friday at Bmdotcom, goes to the cat who changed her mind. She stepped out, with just the one paw. She pawsed. Paw cold cat! She pawed cold water on the original plan and retreated back into the warm.
In other cat news: Why cats like to hide in boxes. It’s because they like to hide. They’re not good at conflict resolution.
So rather than work things out, cats are more inclined to simply run away from their problems or avoid them altogether. A box, in this sense, can often represent a safe zone, a place where sources of anxiety, hostility, and unwanted attention simply disappear.
I’m not the only one doing frightful cat puns. Belfast Telegraph headline:
Why Cats is still not feline its age after thirty years in the limelight
Cats take centre stage at Perth’s first internet cat video festival
More cat news from Oz, this time transport related. Brisbane Times headline:
Uber delivers cats on demand with UberKittens
Finally, the New York Times reports on work by Professor Matthew Ehrlich on the history of media coverage of cats. From the Ehrlich’s abstract:
This article critically examines the Times’ cat tales in the context of the cultural history of journalism and the academic study of human–animal relations, also known as anthrozoology. Trends and themes in the coverage indicate that cats have been used and portrayed as commodities, heroes, villains, victims, women’s best friends, and urban symbols. The stories demonstrate how and why animal news should be taken seriously by journalism scholars. Not only does it offer insight into our evolving relationships with animals, it also provides a provocative means of thinking about where journalism has been and where it is heading.
Critically examines? He just wants to get lots of internet mentions. This is mere academic postmoggyism.
Time to stop.
Like half of London, it would seem, I’ve been suffering with a cough and a cold and a headache, finding it hard to sleep. For some reason it all gets worse at night, especially the headache. Why?
So a couple of incoming emails from Simon Gibbs, concerning some of the pictures I took at that Cost of Living Debate which he organised last October, really cheered me up.
The first email said that one of the pictures I had taken, of one of the speakers, had enabled Simon to flag up, on YouTube, that speaker’s videoed performance, more attractively than might otherwise have been possible. A photo was attached…:
... which Simon described thus:
One of your digital photos on my TV, via the Virgin Media YouTube app.
Then, very soon after that email, another one, longer:
I managed to make some more appear.
The video quality is okay, but the camera was pointing statically at the whole panel. You zoomed in on individual speakers while in action (or at rest), then I was able to crop and add titles and the resulting thumbnail is better than any individual frame of the video.
Here “better” means “better able to encourage someone to click from a list of videos through to the video itself”, meaning they will stand out from the crowd.
And another picture was attached:
I am delighted that my photoing obsession has assisted Simon in his much more strenuous activities. And I got in for free.
Which reminds me that I should long ago have done my own selection of snaps from that evening, and stuck them up here. I may yet do this, and maybe quite soon.
This morning I did a rather negative would-be posting about some Art, Art which had at first rather appealed to me but which, upon further consideration, I decided I did not much like or admire.
But then I realised that my rule for stuff that other people are doing with their own time and money and others are buying and enjoying with their own money and time is for me just to walk away. Why moan? The world is full of stuff I don’t much care for. So long as I don’t get taxed to pay for it, or made to pay attention to it against my will, what on earth is the point of me seeking it out and bitching about it?
For me, this is one of the great benefits that has been brought about by the internet. In the age of the mass media, you had this whole tribe of professional hacks who, day after day, week after week, were made to pay attention to things which quite often they would rather not have been paying attention to. Inevitably, an air of irritation, even hatred, entered the souls and writings of these people. The subtext, and often the text, was: I wouldn’t have picked this in the first place. Only the Culture vultures who really were allowed to pick whatever cultural prey they were inclined to descend upon were able to communicate genuine pleasure, because they were the only Culture vultures who truly felt pleasure. The rest of Culture writing was a mixture of grudging reportage and grumbling, with the occasional cheer when some hack found himself not clock watching, not trying to think of what the hell nice things he could say about something he considered nasty, or worse, just … shrug.
But now a tidal wave of amateurs has crashed into the culture-writing game and it has become, well, a game. It has become fun. We bloggers and twitterers pick on stuff we like, and say: hey, this is cool, this is fun, this is good, this is something I really enjoyed immersing myself in. Maybe you’ll like it too. Commenters and other twitterers then say things like: well, I prefer this, or this, or that or that. If, on the other hand, you said you didn’t like something or other, the response from other www-chatterers is, not unnaturally, just to say: well then why the rude word do you waste your time moaning about it? Walk away. If what you are moaning about is some Big Thing, heavily promoted, made much of, that everyone else seems to be paying attention to, fair enough, you are warning the rest of us off it. But if it is just some little thing you found on the internet and you don’t like it, so rude-word-ing what?
For as long as there was just the one big Culture, that the media people agreed or had to agree was It, then all who wanted to be Cultural had to pay attention to that Culture, whether they liked It or not. It was their duty, just as it was the duty of professional Culture-writers to write about It, to pay attention to It. There was an air of joylessness and obligation about It all, like a queue in a passport office.
Favourite-blogger-of-mine Mick Hartley has written from time to time about the way that Art is now turning into fairground entertainment, often implying that this is a bad thing. I also notice this when I visit London’s South Bank Arts enclave, which now has a much more “visitor attraction” feel to it than it used to have. Hartley does do quite a lot of moaning, but mostly the Cultural stuff he does now is drawing attention to something he likes, thinks deserves to be more noticed, more enjoyed, more celebrated. His posting today is a perfect example of this. It’s not Art, it’s street art. Street art is fun, it appeals to people, and it is also where a lot of the official Art action is now, because the Artists know that these street people are upstaging them.
Political money is now tighter than it was a decade and more ago, and if the Arts fraternity want yet more money, they must try appealing to their audiences rather than baffling them or insulting them. They must now try to give pleasure, the way they tended not to in the twentieth century.
But there is more than economics going on here. After all, there is still a hell of a lot of Official Money being competed for. There is still a great big Culture out there, still being paid for, if not enjoyed. No, the other difference is that there is also that damned internet out there, where regular punters get to say what they really think about it all. If they are being got at by Culture, they can now get back at it, by saying: bollocks, and: I prefer this, or this, or that or that. It’s a different world.
And you’ll never know what it was I just moaning about. I will instead look for other things, that I actually like.
The sort of place I will be looking will be at places like Colossal, which, by the way, is where I found the thing that I liked at first but then didn’t like, that got me started on all this. I don’t like everything at Colossal by any means. But I like a lot of it.
Or, maybe this is really a posting that is not really about Art as such, more about getting old, as so many postings here are. As you get old, you stop worrying about what Art is, if you are one of those people who ever did worry. You just stop paying attention to Art, as in: Where Art Is Going. It will go where it goes, and you go where you want to go. It’s not the world getting happier. It’s not Art getting more fun. It’s just you. It’s just me.
Ah blogging. You can change your mind in mid posting, or even right at the end if you feel inclined. What’s that you say? You disapprove. I must make up my mind. Must I? I tell you what, you go away and read something else, something you’d prefer. This was just a bit of fun, and for you it wasn’t. Forget about it.
Did the junk mail phenomenon always exist? Or is it relatively new? What I have in mind is the way that an entire category of communication becomes broken because it is overused by semi or total crooks shouting rubbish at you, thus overwhelming the actual human persons sending you individually useful messages. Even real messages just sound like arseholes yelling at you. The signal-to-noise ratio becomes so stupid that eventually, no genuine signals get through.
A few days ago, I received an email from something called Macmillan Distribution (MDL). A package was due. There were various buttons for me to press so that I could track the package, or tell them where else to deliver it, or some such thing. I immediately assumed that this was an industrialised garbage message, the purpose of which was for me to tell crooks about myself by pressing one of the buttons. Having received many junk messages just like this in the recent past, I assumed that this one was similarly fraudulent.
I noted that they had my name and address, and this might have supplied me with the clue that this was actually a genuine message about a genuine delivery, from a genuine enterprise, with buttons for me to press which actually did what they said they would do. But instead, I merely thought: oh dear, now the international conglomeration of bastard junk emailer fraudsters knows my name and address. Oh well, more crap to delete.
But this morning, the package actually arrived, at a time that the emails had been referring to. The emails from Macmillan Distribution (MDL) (there were three emails in total) had all been genuine. It was a book that I had already paid for and wanted to read. So, good.
The actual delivery was a mess. Some arsehole just smacked the door of my flat (sounding like when the cleaners vacuum the landings and bang their machines into our doors), and then just stuffed the package through my mail flap (which very luckily was big enough). No electronic buzzing from outside and downstairs, to get my attention while I slumbered, like a proper delivery. And how the hell did this arsehole contrive to get through the downstairs front door in the first place? (We’ve had robberies from people claiming to be delivering things, but actually hoovering up the deliveries of others from our (unlocked and wide open) cubby holes.) So, very unsatisfactory, as home deliveries so often are. But, the thing itself did arrive, which means the delivery scored one out of one on the one measure that really counts.
And, as I say, those emails were all for real.
No doubt there are various twenty first century, social media like methods that I could have used to track this parcel and its delivery, methods which screen out junk and preserve a benign signal-to-noise ratio. Maybe, any decade now, I will have to get with the twenty first century and dump email completely.
I vividly recall when having email first became a necessity, when you suddenly started getting dirty looks at parties if you didn’t have it. And when fax numbers ceased mattering. (Remember those?)
As of now, regular twenty first century people half my age still seem to do email, or so it says on those little cards they give me. But how long will this last?
More about package delivering from 6k, here. “Wumdrop” sounds sort of like Uber, only for things.
What is it with vegetarians and their veggie sausages and burgers? I’m a meat eater, but I don’t go around making carrots and sprouts out of beef.
This is also a good one:
I work in a call centre in Norwich and we’ve just been told our jobs are moving to India. I’m so excited! I’ve always wanted to visit India and with the salary they pay me I’ll be able to live like a Maharaja over there. Well done Aviva, keep up the good work.
Interesting piece about the rise and fall and rise of Viz, here.
I haven’t yet finished showing you photos from that Adam Smith Institute Boat Trip, that I got in on and took lots of photos of, at the beginning of this month, and which I have been showing here, now and again, ever since then. I’m hardly even close.
For instance, it’s taken me three quarters of a month to get around to it, but, of course, there were other photographers present besides me:
I chose these pictures simply because they fitted the bill subject matter wise, and because they look nice. I did not choose them to illustrate any particular point about digital photography.
The result being that they do illustrate a particular point about digital photography. Consider the stats.
There are two regular old school digital cameras to be seen snapping (1.1 and 1.3), three if you count mine. There is also just the one big tablet being used (3.3).
All the other photographers are using mobile phones.
Usually, when I photograph photographers, there are more regular old school dedicated digital cameras to be seen. But this is because I am photographing lots of “photographers”, i.e. people like me, who see themselves as more photography-minded than regular people.
What this boat trip illustrates is how much regular people now use their mobiles to take photos, in among all that networking and connecting and chatting and socialising. It isn’t so much that mobiles have replaced those tiny, cheap digital cameras, although yes it is that, a bit. But it is more that mobiles can now take photos, so now they do. A lot of photos are now being taken that would not have been taken at all, before mobile phones learned how to take photos, by people for whom mobile phones are essential, and photography with mobile phones began only as an extra.
And you can bet that many of the photos that the above people were taking were already flying off into the big www beyond, to work their propaganda magic, promoting the ASI, its Boat Trip, and the people who went on it, before the trip was even over.
Young people these days are quicker off the mark than I am. That’s their job. And being slower off the mark is mine.
Incoming from 6k, about a dramatic Big Things photo that he came across, via a Facebook friend. There is also a blog posting at his place about it, and about how I might like it, which indeed I do.
I’ve done what he suggested and have thinned it for here:
He has the whole thing, and here it is even bigger. Very dramatic, I think you will agree.
6k entitles his posting “Waterloo sunset”. This is a fine Kinks song, but sunsets are defined by where you are when you see them, and this photo was taken from the other side from Waterloo of the Big Things of the City of London, which is what these Big Things are. He has most of them identified, but his big omission (no criticism intended - he is, after all, now 6k miles away) is the tallest one, in the middle. This is the Cheesegrater.
My first thought was that this view might have been taken from the spot I visited last January, when I took these Big Thing photos.
But that isn’t right. However, some other photos I took that day that do point at the approximate spot where the above sunset photo was, I think, taken from.
Photos like this one, also thinned:
6k’s sunset photo was taken from somewhere in among those houses on the other side of the river, with the Shard sticking up behind, on the left of my photo.
Here is a slice of Google Map which shows were everyone is:
I was where it says “ME”. The Big Things of the City are where it says “BIG THINGS”, and 6k’s anonymous photographer was standing somewhere very approximately where I have put “?”. The spot I chose for “?” is something called Stave Hill Ecological Park, which sounds very promising, what with it maybe being a hill. I have never been there and I must check it out. But, that’s only my guess. The photographer could have been quite a bit further south and/or west. Don’t know.
But there is more. While going through the photos I took last January, comparing them with 6k’s sunset photo, I came across this one, which I have again thinned:
Again, click to get the bigger version.
Now, in the middle there, unmistakably (with three unmistakable holes in its top), is the Strata.
But, and I only spotted this today, almost directly behind it is the equally unmistakable Spraycan, unmistakable because in the dark, that is how the Spraycan is always lit up.
Here is a close up of the two of them:
The Strata is at the Elephant and Castle, and the Spraycan is way over in Vauxhall. Beyond Waterloo, in other words. Once again, I hit google maps, to check on the alignment of these two favourite Big Things, and it all fits. By and by, I shall return to that same spot, to take more and better versions of this photo.
Like I always say, my camera has better eyesight than I have. On days like that one, it almost invariably sees far more than I see.
I am fond of saying that a consequence of how Big Thing architecture tends to be done these is that there is now a big call for highly specialised window cleaners. (See, for instance, this piece, about One New Change.) Just hanging a shelf down from the top no longer does it, because now the walls are liable to slope every which way.
Now, you need mountaineers:
A social enterprise is looking for people with a head for heights who want to be The Shard’s window cleaners.
The unique opportunity was posted on jobs site Good People Connect, and pays up to £20,000 a year, depending on experience.
You need to have abseiled before for the role, working 6am to 2pm six days a week, and need to be unemployed and living in Southwark.
That’s from a short report by Robyn Vinter, of whom I was critical the other day. Good to be able to be nicer this time around.
If you’ve not been there before, I recommend visiting Handpicked London. I’ve just been browsing through it, and found my way from it to Photographs of Tower Bridge being constructed are found in a skip, from December 2011, which I do not remember noticing at the time. (The first two of those are Facebook links, and maybe they don’t last. You have to register, is what the second one just said.)
These photographs of Tower Bridge being constructed have been unveiled after a stash of hundred-year-old photos were found in a skip. The 50 sepia pictures, the most recent of which date back to 1892, reveal in incredible detail the ingenuity behind one of the capital’s most popular tourist destinations.
Hybrid modernism. Modern in its manner of creation. Ancient in appearance. An architectural style with a lot of mileage in it.
LATER: More stuff from me about towers here.
Incoming, entitled “Request Link Removal”:
I am contacting you on behalf of Eurostar, we work with their Online Marketing team and are currently reviewing the number of links pointing to the Eurostar website. In order to comply with Google’s regulations, there are a number of links which we are required to remove or nofollow. We have identified such links from your website and would like to request that you either remove the link or add a nofollow tag to it.
The link(s) we wish to be removed can be found here:
[original link written out but it doesn’t fit properly here]
Please can you let me know once you have altered the link or if you have any questions,
SEO Account Executive
360i | 62-70 Shorts Gardens | Covent Garden| London, WC2H 9AH
The link in the above email is to an entire month of postings here, so it took me a while to find the offending link in question. I was half hoping I wouldn’t find it, so I could send a sarky email back saying: Be more specific. Which posting? No such luck. It’s in this posting, where is says “November”. Worth following that link because it is to one of my very best ever (I think) photos.
I don’t understand what a “nofollow tag” is or how to make such a thing work, so I just removed the link.
My link originally went “http(semicolon)//stpancras.eurostar.com/en-gb/why-we-moving” (I’ve changed “:” to “(semicolon)” there to stop this version causing more grief). Trying StPancrasDotEurostarDotCom now gets Google saying:
Oops! Google Chrome could not find stpancras.eurostar.com. Did you mean: www.eurostar.com/stpancras
Interesting that Google omits the question mark there, I think.
So, presumably this is a case of an old Eurostar website that they no longer want anyone reading.
Or is it? I don’t know. Can anyone tell me more about what just happened?
To me, it all has a slightly objectionable taste to it. The link to our site no longer works, so you must remove your link to it. Why? Why can’t the link just not work any more? Does it clog up the internet, or something, with repeated attempts to make the link work? Is that what this is about?
Mick Hartley links to some pictures of people forming human sculptures. He chooses his favourite. I choose this one:
One of the speculations I offered in my recent talk about the impact of digital photography was that digital photography has greatly encouraged this kind of temporary art.
Recently I heard tell of some kind of performance art event where cameras were forbidden. My googling skills did not enable me to track down any report of such an event, but I am guessing that one of their motives was to avoid the creation of an object, which someone might later buy, and then (perhaps for a great deal more money) sell. And I further guess that the “artists” in question were being deliberately contrary, as artists typically like to be these days, and chose to do the daft, counter-intuitive thing. The obvious response to temporary art is to take pictures of it, to make it permanent. So, said the artists, let’s forbid that, and be different.
But most people who do something “creative” want some kind of record or product of their efforts, something to show for it. Literally, some thing, to show. And the fact that it is now so totally easy to create such things, such records, and communicate them far and wide to friends and family, real and virtual, must surely increase the attraction of doing such temporary art. Art, that is to say, that in the past would have been temporary, but which can now be made permanent. See also: painting, sand castles, ice sculptures.
As to what these particular people are communicating with their body assemblages, what it speaks to me of is the futility of life in the world now, for young people, educated, unemployable, unneeded, probably in debt.
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 on, 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 processed. 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.
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 less 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 anyone, 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.