What We Lose When Technology Does All the Photographing for Us

Try finding a place today without GPS — gosh, has technology made life easier. The world is so much less complicated to navigate but, arguably, harder to know. Just the other day I’ve decided to walk to a place in Bangkok I’ve been driving to countless times before. By walking there I was able for the first time to look around and really see the area, neither sitting inside a car nor under time pressure to be there at a certain time. I was free to choose any of the myriad of little roads and completely rediscovered an area I thought I’d knew already. How I normally go to places? Hardly look around. The smartphone knows how to get there. Need to find a restaurant at the other end of town? A digital map will tell me. Digital maps have effectively replaced the need for the mental ones — with the excruciating implication that we are now spending more time looking at those screens in our palms than looking around. We no longer have to talk (and thereby meet!) strangers to ask for the way. We can travel through a city we’ve never been to and reach a place we’ve never been to with the accuracy of military rocket technology. How we got there doesn’t matter. In a way it’s similar with digital photography. So busy commandeering those menus, options and dials that do everything the photographer once was supposed to do, many are too distracted to to truly look and see. We’re fixated on the virtual reality on the little LCD screen where all the magic happens while life that matters passes unnoticed before our face.

Today, hardly anyone cares how to set up aperture, speed and sensitivity for landscape, portraits or macro. There’s a menu for everything, with added filters and special effects. Few still take pride in the fact that photography can be done without any support by technology, well with the exception maybe of a light meter. Who today still analyzes a scene and its lighting from memory and experience, and then chooses the right “mechanical” settings? No HDR. No extended dynamic range. Just imagine. Call it “The Knowledge.” It takes years to develop and nurture, a process that likely even changes the brain.

Handing over everything to technology not only leads to a certain numbification of our awareness. The consequences are far more serious. For instance, how is it possible that despite huge gains in technology and therefore productivity the average person today is working longer hours for lower wages. How does it happen that median family incomes fall, while 99% of all new income is going to the top 1%.

The root cause is similar to why we can’t or don’t want to read maps anymore and why we trust fancy algorithms when shooting a camera: we were assured that life will become more safe, more secure and easier. In the end, the price for a bit more comfort is a steep one. We’re getting incapacitated by technology, because we’re not able to do most basic things by ourselves anymore.

Let’s go back to GPS. Traditional, old-school cabbie drivers still take pride in the fact that they can do what most drivers can’t, navigate every corner of a city from memory, without any handheld devices, dashboards or ear buds needed. Change though will be inevitable. New York has lately scaled back how it tests new cabbie applicants on their knowledge of the city’s geography. The New York Times‘ Corey Kilgannon recently wrote:

Knowing how to get around the five boroughs of New York City — understanding not just the geography, but the nuances of timing and the endless exceptions to every rule — is part of driving a yellow cab here. And as part of their training, New York cabbies have long had to face a rigorous set of geography questions on the 80-question test they must pass to get a license. Landmarks and popular destinations were on the test, but so were less familiar streets and alternate routes. It was not quite “The Knowledge,” the test London cabbies spend years preparing for, but even drivers from the city found it daunting.

Now those questions have disappeared, happily for future test takers, perhaps not so much for those who will be riding in the back seats.

The New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission acknowledges that technology has changed how its drivers get around. For the last two years, rules have allowed drivers to opt to keep navigation systems in their vehicles instead of laminated map books. And fewer geography questions may mean that the test can emphasize more questions about safety — including the new safety problems posed by using technology while driving.

The shift away from actual knowledge to following the orders of an automated device is a practical concession to technological change that makes sense, doesn’t it. But it raises a couple of philosophical questions, the most important one being: what’s the difference between a cab driver with intimate knowledge of a city and average Joe who just presses some buttons and gets there as fast as the knowledgeable cabbie driver.

In fact, why should there be professional cabbies any longer. Anyone can drive a cab, as the only skills required are how to drive a car. Same happens to photographers. Anyone can be a photographer and shoot large billboards and pep up images thanks to modern technology that’s even turning phones into most capable optical machines. Still, something must be missing. Who would refute that traditional photography skills still can make a difference. Hard to prove, but if we no longer believe in such nuances we wouldn’t care a bit whether we eat industrially produced food or food from a local farm, would we.

With GPS, you don’t need to know where anything is anymore. With modern cameras, you don’t need to know how that camera actually works.

Who cares? The camera is solely a means to an end. I need a tool to make a picture, that’s it. Or not? Don’t they always say the journey is the reward, and once you reach the destination look out for the next journey?

No distraction please, moments only last for so long... Street artist, served on a platter | Daniel Kestenholz
No distraction please, moments only last for so long… Street artist, served on a platter | Daniel Kestenholz
Sustainable, satisfying photography is probably a mix of both. Because only a fool would deny the benefits of technology. And only a fool wants to become a slave of technology. Just imagine what happens when the power goes out. When a gadget breaks or a system goes down. But that’s not all we risk losing when relying on technology.

By not acquiring an own, unique set of skills, be it as a photographer, a cabbie or whatever, the world turns into a flat, boring, odorless place. No more serendipity, less developed awareness skills, no more urge to discover or find the most amazing places by occasionally getting lost, no more interesting encounters with strangers, nothing out of the ordinary anymore.

What makes the growing dominance of technology so tricky is that it still gives us a feeling of individualism. Hey, not two photographs look the same! But for all the benefits we enjoy thanks to ever more powerful cameras, don’t they cost us something much more measurable, too. Such as the ability to just look up again and see, not being distracted by an ever beeping device, not fixated on an LCD screen and not being teased by just released, yet much much better gear.

Everything that can be done in-camera can be done later on by post-processing. Why work the menus and dials and waste precious moments when doing what we love doing, photographing. Why review photos on playback mode. Just missed another precious moment.

Technology can easily get in the way of things by defocusing our focus. But I guess by being aware of this “blinding” effect of technology, the effect is already defused.

In the end it’s all about the photographer. The skilled one knows — gadgetry or not — that technology diverts attention in some fundamental way and that the sense of connection a photographer ultimately find to a person, a scene or an event, that this connection is as a photograph, in a digitized experience, more likely retrievable if the photographer was focused, aware and connected at the time shooting.

(inspired by Washington Post)

  • I enjoyed the reading, thank you, and I agree with everything written.

    In the last months I slowed down my photography, it happened thanks to a personal decision first, helped by the dp2 and dp3 Quattro cameras I bought.
    Then I went back to film again.

    That had the “negative” side of being less important and present on those so called social media. Well, somehow I like it.

    Granted, technology is a great thing, and walking around with a ricohGR in tav mode is somewhat mind refreshing, but I am more and more enjoying photography in every moment, from the search of a subject, the feeling of the camera in my hands, to the moment I review images at home.

  • Dave

    Thanks for that good read. Technology is taking away self-confidence. Remember as a kid crawling afternoons through the woods when mobile phones did not exist and nobody worried? A lot of things changed meanwhile and I am not sure if always to the better if we talk about real life.

  • Jack Zook

    You touch upon the central issue perhaps of out time. Technology has replaced society. You should have been with me in Bangkok a half century ago.

  • Andy Umbo

    I’d gladly go back to film any day, and I still shoot a lot of it..I like the timing of projects under the old workflow. No one thought they could get something done in a day, now people know they can get the digital imagery same day, so they’re will to accept whatever crap the digital photographer could throw together in a day; all because they don’t have the capacity to plan. These people that rely on this timing, well, 20 years ago, they were the ones that lost their jobs because they couldn’t plan and organize.

    Beautiful publications were put out, on time, 30-40-50 years ago, because people actually had the intelligence to plan and organize. There are people that say digital photography has allowed some really creative people to finally get their work ‘seen’, because before, they didn’t have the technical ability to accomplish it. Ha! I’d gladly cut those few people loose, to lose the millions of people that have been junking up the world with their “vision”.

    An old art director told me one time, that before computers, she used to spend hours going to paper dealers and actually looking at and feeling paper stock, hours at the type place, looking at new fonts, years leaning the creative of her craft: seeing, feeling, thinking. The day they put a computer on her desk, they fired the production department, and now all she does is spend weeks learning the programs over again every time they upgrade. No time for the “art” of it…

    Technology has facilitated the questionably talented and impacted the way we live so that we are now in service to our computer overlords!

  • Ain’t that place still here right now, Jack?

  • “For the art of it”, as you say. This really makes me thinking. What is it, the “art of it”? Some sort of layer or value — in this case in the world of photography — that can’t be logically explained? Something that purely matters to the human being? Maybe that’s the only thing left that distinguishes us from artificial intelligence, Or as some suggest, human culture started with the invention of cooking. If we take everything at face value without adding any “art” or “culture” to it, well, then… aren’t we developing backwards?

  • Photography would be an excellent point in case to nurture self-confidence, or self-awareness for that! What better means to gauge one’s own “clout” than by photographing, by facing, by exposing the world! Because photographing means getting a response. It’s always a dialog, never a monologue. Photography is engaging, all the time. It’s a bit sad indeed that most people these days stopped looking around. Bent down over a screen there’s nothing else to see than virtual reality and secondary experiences.

    As a kid, when playing football (soccer I mean), we got so dirty, everything was always so dirty from tackles on wet grass, earth, mud, you name it. Today? My son’s playing football on artificial astro turf. Looks like grass, short of the feel, smell and freshness that rose from grass.

  • another thought

    Interesting article…but this sort of nostalgia has always been around with every generation. People have lamented the advent of the TV, the automobile, the radio, the record player, etc.

    Technology is just a tool, and like all tools, can be used for good or ill. The reason why technology wins out is because overall the benefit to society is hugely positive. Consider where we would be without digital computing…consider the advances in medicine alone that digital computing has led to. Consider the advances in materials science, chemical science, etc…it’s staggering.

    Even in the area of photography, the net impact has been positive. More people are taking more photos and enjoying photography than ever before. To an enthusiast that may seem hard to believe, but you have to consider that those making all of those smartphone snapshots do derive value from doing so…and many people they know derive value. I’ve seen many people take these type of snapshots and really cherish them…they can mean a lot.

    And if not for digital photography, then most of these people wouldn’t be out with their film cameras learning the details of photography, but instead not taking any pictures. I maintain that it’s rather an elitist attitude to brand all of these people as somehow lowering the culture or damaging the art of photography. If people make all types of snapshots that doesn’t in any way subtract from my experience using more sophisticated equipment. The beauty of our free society is that people can choose. Those who want digital can go digital. Those who want film can still go film. If you don’t want to look at instagram or facebook, then don’t do it. It’s very simply.

    As I get older I too get this feeling of nostalgia for the good ol’ days…but let’s remember that it’s just that: nostalgia. It happens to every generation. The kids growing up today will no doubt have this same type of conversation reminiscing about today’s technology versus whatever future tech will be around later.

    The reason why new technology wins out is because it’s better than what it is replacing.

  • Important inputs, thank you for those. Am not judging, just observing, yes, in a way nostalgically because our attention is diverted away from persons, interactions and experiences to a virtual reality with a seemingly better looking world and hundreds of virtual followers and friends — and how many real ones? This article is not about better or worse photography, it’s about how technology allows us to disengage from our environment. How fine nuances of life disappear and how we risk losing a fundamental sense of being connected to what happens around us.

  • another thought

    Thanks Dan for your kind response. There is indeed this sense among many that technology creates this disengagement from our environment. I have thought the same. But is this really so?

    If so, then when was the golden age of people engaging with their environment? People have always been able to check out from their environment…the people around them, their culture, etc… if they choose to do so. People could do so with drugs, other diversions and hobbies, etc. I remember growing up I was a bit of a bookworm, and sometimes my mother would make me put down the books and go outside. So even books can be accused of the same capacity to create disengagement.

    Human nature runs deeper than the state of the tools we use at the time. And technology can create engagement. Technology can connect people instead of separating them. Technology can open up new worlds to people…nature, science, photography, etc.

    To understand where I am coming from consider my story with regards to photography. I grew up in the film era, but was largely disinterested in photography, but I was interested in the emerging world of computers and digital technology. When cameras went digital and became computers, I became interested. I now have this wonderful hobby and a new way to see the world, and a new appreciation even of film photography. Of course through technology I have learned much, and have a deeper appreciation of science and nature. So because technology has worked for me and broadened my world and created engagement with my environment I see this whole issue differently.

    Again, thanks for sparking a great discussion…I always find your writing to be thought provoking and a fantastic read.

  • Thank you for being a longtime reader with valuable contributions, really do appreciate.

    Well, in the end, maybe it all boils down to time management. So much more is possible in much less time thanks to technology. Basically, our digital environment compresses time.

    Thinking back, when I was traveling the continents, the only two ways of communication with my family back home was either the phone call, very expensive back then everywhere when calling overseas, or the good old letter. Think I wrote a letter every day. To family, friends, friends again. Can’t remember when I wrote the last letter. It’s all emails and social media today.

    Gone is that sensation when opening a handwritten letter myself. A letter always was something very personal. Not an email. Even though the same words can be communicated.

    Yes, maybe I’m a hopeless romantic. But similar changes apply to photography and life as a whole as well.

  • Dave

    This is a true and impressive post. Maybe photography is nostalgia?

    Allow me to add that when I travelled Indochina I was a guest in a almost ‘no-tech’ poor village close to the Cambodian border sitting amongst rice farmers on the veranda’s floor as the Vietnamese do all the time. The eldest asked what I think about their lives and I was a bit overwhelmed but tried to answer that I was moved to tears seeing this community, something that does not exist in my world anymore. This community was held together by necessity and it might seem cynic but there is a value in it we rich are excluded from.

    There we tried to install water systems to get rid of arsenic. No doubt this kind of technology is progress, obviously. And whatever we respectfully touched there to improve peoples lives made full sense to me.

    But even in that poor environment the youngsters had their Nokias and behaved exactly as we do with our iPhones: sticking their noses into electronic endorphin and sensation. Under these circumstances I expected different priorities. But this tech seems to be very powerful and I am not that sure that there is much of a choice and self-responsibility. While I see advantages in this tech I’d rate it closer to drugs than to progress, not as intense as drugs but infecting the masses, creating new desires nobody really needs.

    From all this I doubt your conclusion that Dan and others here just suffer from nostalgia only. It might be equally true that tech is taking control by distracting us. And I hope that Dan’s post supports awareness for that dynamic.

  • Andy Umbo

    We ARE developing backwards…technology was supposed to give us free time to experience and grow in the humanities, instead it’s opened it’s maw and swallowed us whole, and now we’re enslaved to it and working longer hours than ever before. The U.S. white collar, working class average is now more hours per week than Japan in the 80’s when people were committing suicide at their desks and jumping out of windows!

    Someone did a study a while back to prove that the work culture in the U.S. was more productive due to technology, and what they proved was that the productivity level was based on the fact that people were working about 10-20 more hours a week than 30 years ago; and because those were now white-collar hours, vs. the blue collar hours of 30 years ago, they were unpaid!

    Digital photography technology has made the questionably talented, good enough to deliver bottom end acceptable work to the creative community. It’s increased the amount of people doing the work, and the increased competition has compressed prices, so that even if you are good, because of the pricing you have to work far more than you did 40 years ago. Digital technology in photography is directly related to the fact that the average income in photography in the U. S. has dropped from 38K USD in 2004, to 28K USD in 2014!

    I think in the case of photography, the digital monster has taken more than it’s given…

  • Omer

    What was that mattered in the past that is different than today? If you were a person of color, or of the distaff gender, or poor the past would probably not seem so wistful.

  • Omer

    You are romanticizing third world poor people. Do you really believe the necessity for toiling rural Vietnam children is better than the education choices of say, Australian children?

    As for the “ruination” of youngsters from technology, we in wealthy countries have no mandate in, yes, their choices.

  • You’re saying technology has a stronger impact on people not directly using technology? In this case technology is certainly a drive for betterment and we’re talking “luxury problems”…

  • another thought

    There was an interesting article in Forbes titled “Why Do We Always Sell the Next Generation Short?”

    A choice morsel:
    The willingness of humans to try new things and experiment with new forms of culture—our “adventure window”—fades rapidly after certain key points in life, as we gradually settle in our ways. The English satirist Douglas Adams put it this way: “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

    Consequently, once their adventure window slams shut, many parents, policymakers, or social pundits convince themselves that “the good ‘ol days” are behind us and the current good-for-nothing generation and their new-fangled gadgets and culture are steering us straight into the moral abyss. “There has probably never been a generation since the Paleolithic that did not deplore the fecklessness of the next and worship a golden memory of the past,” notes Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist.