We Don’t Use Cameras Anymore, They Use Us

The advancements of technology have always given us more control over our lives and time — especially now in the digital age. Take digital cameras. They help us master amazingly difficult exposures and we see details we weren’t aware of before. But these machines also start controlling the lives of many of us. In fact, people today seem to feel they’re not really present if they haven’t taken their own photos or videos of a thing happening. And in doing so, they of course remove themselves from the actual experience.

Digital technologies — and digital cameras for that — have become amazingly helpful, omnipresent and practically infallible. Mankind, on the other hand, remains unreliable, unpredictable and “human” as ever. Yet, we try to lead a “digital lifestyle” and imitate our perfect machines.

Life is no longer limited to 36 captures. As with digital cameras and the ubiquity of imaging devices, life has become “always-on.” We lose traditions and old rules. Sunday has become just an ordinary day. We travel more, work at all hours and spend our free time answering emails or tending to our social networks.

Staring into screens around the clock, we are less attuned to light of day and the physiological rhythms of our housemates and co-workers. We are more likely to accept the digital clock’s illusion that all time is equivalent and interchangeable. But it isn’t.

The same way we snap and record and store everything with our always-present smartphones and cameras, giving us the illusion of knowing and understanding and seeing everything.

This always-on philosophy works for a life lead by machines. But too many of us also aspire to be “on” at any time and to treat the various portions of the day and life per se as mere artifacts of a more primitive culture — the way we look at seemingly archaic blue laws requiring stores to close at least one day a week.

Also the way we snap away with digital cameras as opposed to the old, selective approach of rolls of film, people become afraid they don’t really live and feel the moment without digitally capturing and storing and spreading and sharing it.

What a difference eight years make. St. Peter's Square in 2005 vs. 2013. | #NBCPope
What a difference eight years make. St. Peter’s Square in 2005 vs. 2013. | #NBCPope

And this is the digital trap: instead of teaching our technologies to conform to our own innate rhythms, we strive to become more compatible with our machines’ timeless nature and restless performance.

We fetishize concepts such as the cyborg or human technological enhancement, looking to bring our personal evolution up to the pace of Apple system updates. We answer our email as it arrives, we trust the Web to calculate our best mates and our algorithmically generated Klout scores stand in for social status while we get comfort from the Net assuring us which gear and camera’s the promised one instead of listening to ourselves.

By letting technology lead the pace, we don’t increase genuine choice or human competence at all. Bloggers — count me in! — disconnect themselves from the beats they may be covering by working through the screen and keyboard, covering the online photography of their subjects.

Designers base their products on the computer readouts of incoming calls at 1 a.m. Lovers expect immediate and appropriate responses to their text messages, however tired or overworked the partner might be.

Programmers expect themselves to generate the same quality code at 2 a.m. as they did at 2 p.m. earlier — and are willing to medicate themselves in order to do so.

Human investors compete with algorithms trading at ultrafast speeds and responding to our orders before they are even executed. Our digital competitors are quite literally trading in our future.

In each of these cases, the bloggers, designers, lovers, programmers and investors, all sacrifice their connection to real-world rhythms in order to match those dictated by their technologies and digital devices.

Reporters miss out on the actual news cycle and its ebb and flow of activity. Programmers work less efficiently by refusing to recognize naturally peak productive hours.

Designers miss out on quite powerfully determinative cultural trends by focusing on the mediated responses of insomniac television viewers.

Businesses ignore the natural ebb and flow of market cycles, and poison their own consumers by attempting to stimulate them all season, every season.

And photographers, photographers are in danger to forget what photography is all about.

You get either absorbed by the magic of the Web and miss photo opportunity after photo opportunity, or you’re puzzling over the endless settings, functions and buttons of a latest and greatest camera that’s not yet even available.

If a photographer still happens to take pictures, there’s noting left to do than releasing the shutter button and bursts will capture more than an eagle is able to see. Yet, we become blind to what is happening around us and really there to see. We’re not even able to see how our partner, best friend, colleagues feel. How can we pretend to “see” images.

Imagine, instead of trying to ride roughshod over these cycles, how about actually using or even exploiting recent discoveries about our common neurochemical responses to the four-week lunar cycle. Because each week, a different neurotransmitter seems to dominate.

One week, acetylcholine emphasizes new social contacts. In the next, serotonin enhances productivity. In the third, increased dopamine emphasizes risk-taking and recreation. In the last, norepinephrine heightens our analytic skills.

The serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters could offer an ideal window for photography outings. Instead of forcing or drugging ourselves to fight these patterns, we could engage these cycles to enhance our results.

The promises by digital technology are easy mistakes to make. The opportunity offered to us, however, is to facilitate our lives, to reclaim our time and program our devices to conform to our personal and collective rhythms.

Computers don’t really care about our lives. Neither did a film camera. But even less does a digital one. We’re so preoccupied with trying to understand that darn complex thing that we tend to forget what actually matters in photography. That’s often the case why we end up with a flood of interchangeable, replaceable images. Hey it’s all the same filters, presets, subjects and objects.

Because the main difference between digital photography and its print predecessors is that its bias is toward broadcast and sharing. Traditional photographs were scarce — both in the sense of saving film (just 36 shots at best per roll!) and privacy (photos had to be hand-shown to someone).

Digital photography is almost infinitely abundant, and basically distributed by default.

It has also become ubiquitous as a way of “experiencing” events. You saw those photos comparing the two Papal introductions? People today seem to feel they’re not really present if they haven’t taken their own photos or videos of the thing happening. And in doing so, they of course remove themselves from the actual experience.

It’s not easy to listen again to our own rhythms and cycles, especially not when we are using social networking and sharing technologies that connect us and in many ways amplify the rhythmic qualities of our living cultures.

For while the ease of digital imaging technology can serve to disconnect us from really seeing, it can also serve to bring us back into sync to really see.

This is THEME’s free adaptation of Douglas Rushkoff‘s glorious essay in the Wall Street Journal We Don’t Run Computers Anymore, They Run Us.

The essay is based on Rushkoff’s forthcoming book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. And thanks Douglas for some additional thoughts on digital photography!

  • Drazen B

    Very well writen article, Dan…once again.

    You summed up the issues that have been on top of my mind for some time, as well. And I’m the guy with a Nikon F100 allways ready in my bag ;-)

    Let’s just hope there’s hope and great future for the humanity as a whole, at this rate of changes I’m not so sure anymore. However, hoping for the best, as I believe most of us do.

  • dierk

    thanks, Daniel, for another impressive article and overview.

    “Programmers expect themselves to generate the same quality code at 2 a.m. as they did at 2 p.m. earlier”

    I used to be a programmer in the 70s and we used punch cards and very
    often could test only at night, when the bid Main Frame was not in
    production. 2 a.m. was often very normal for us :)

    “Because the main difference between digital photography and its print
    predecessors is that its bias is toward broadcast and sharing.
    Traditional photographs were scarce — both in the sense of saving film
    (just 36 shots at best per roll!) and privacy (photos had to be
    hand-shown to someone).”

    I was always was unshure to “invest” one or two more frames/money on a
    scene and I have hundreds or even thousands of negatives in my files,
    that are good for printing, but I never had the time and invested the
    money for prints and so they got lost and forgotten :((

    If I got 2 or 3
    print from one night in the dark room, I was glad.

    In my photo club we were abut 10 people to share a few print per meeting every other week – frustrating.

    Today I shoot up to a few hundred images per day, control and select
    them in half an hour or less, develop the best of them and load them up
    into my flickr or any forum – and get responses from all over the world
    within minutes or hours – fantastic!

    My first SLR in the beginning 60s was a German Edixa Reflex with a 50mm lens, no zooms at that time.

    The lens had a little lever to open it before the shot for focusing

    and when I hit the shutter release,

    the aperture closes (and stays closed!),

    the mirror went up (and stayed up!!!)

    and the finder was dark!

    and you got the picture – if you had an exposure meter and measured or guessed the exposure correctly :)

    After more than 10 years with digital compact and DSLR’s I am back to the roots:

    I use the small Leica with the best prime lenses on the world, with
    manual aperture, manual exposure time if I want (just one click on the
    wheel) – and I am very happy with my results.

    many regards


  • Certainly a bit challenging piece, thanks for reading Drazen.

    I think the photography market’s recent retro wave fits perfectly into the overall picture — see, you’re even using an F100!

    Many want to slow down.

  • See Dierk, even in the film days one could produce too much… As a rule of thumb I try to delete/forget about/ignore 99% of my work and concentrate on what’s worthwhile.

    Real keepers are a very rare thing.

  • ““I fear the day when technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.”

    Albert Einstein

  • 0.3% about for me once I understood editing better. We easily get attached to photographs for personal reasons and have a difficult time overcoming that barrier.