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?
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.