Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The False Promise of Progress

I was a reluctant adopter of digital photography. I held out against it for a long time, but have to confess that the 12 years that I have been shooting digital seem longer than they have been. I might even be tempted to confess that I was merely holding out for better technology before I transitioned from film. Today, I still have my film camera and there are a few rolls of film that I take out to breath that familiar scent.

Feel free to accuse me of rationalization, but there was an inevitability to digital photography's ascension in the last decade or so and it is one of several instances in our time where science or technology have distanced us from not only an older, more familiar world, but from reality as well. Perhaps it is merely an attachment to the analog on my part and the extra craftsmanship that goes into creating and finishing in analog mediums such as film or vinyl. I still find it more wondrous and miraculous that a precise concoction of sounds can be delivered via vinyl and stylus or a certain richness of colours and tones from plastic and whatever inky emollient the film carries, expectant to contact with an instant of light.

The digital, however, turns sound, light and countless other things into data and arranges them before us in mediums and dimensions for our reflection, absorption and distraction. In my case, it may just be trading the smell of film in for the benefits of digital photography, which would include the instant feedback, the control in the editing process and the opportunity to more accurately capture colours thanks to light temperature controls. The trade is more substantial than that, however.

When committed to an increasingly technological way of doing things you do so at the expense of having to stay on that path. There becomes an integration into a way of viewing and experiencing the world strictly by digital or technological means. Evidence exists that supports the theory that we are less attentive when reading e-books, experience less brain activity when listening to music via MP3's rather than vinyl. The digital is ubiquitous now and while we might make it universal it lacks the depth to have the required impact on us. The superficial aspects of the song or the image are captured and despite the suggestion that these digital artifacts are complete, we do pick up on the absence of "something."

Apart from the absent architecture that is absent from a JPEG image, but is more substantial (to an extent) in a RAW file of a photograph, there is something essential that we are unable to contemplate in the digital realm. The mediation, whether by computer, thumbnail screen on the back of a camera or some other means of transmission to convert that binary data into an experience is lacking something because of the digital nature of the form. There was a time when the material form of a photograph, a phonograph or a book had some meaning for us. With music there was not only the tangibility of the "software" of an LP, but an evidence of purpose in the oldest phonographs that had a horn to them to suggest that this was a means of transmitting sound.

Beyond merely being quaint and appealing for the obvious embodiment of purpose these things also linked themselves to our senses. Consider the form of the phonograph as a mechanical approximation of sound reception and transmission. Go from there to the approximation or consideration of vision that has gone into the creation and use of cameras, microscopes and telescopes. In an increasingly digital world, more and more of the old mimetic artefacts we were surrounded by have morphed into boxes that bear little indication of their purpose. Scale aside, there was little to distinguish a VCR from a strip mall. As we proceed further and further into the digital realm there is more and more expectation that we fulfill more and more of our needs through a laptop.

One possible conclusion of this convergence into the digital world as it closes in on that fading dot in the middle of an old TV screen became apparent to me a few weeks ago upon an OS update on my computer. For a moment after installing the update there was a sudden uncertainty about whether or not the digital photography program I have on my computer would be compatible and operable with the new OS. The fate of the photos I had stored in the program was in doubt and the possibility of not being to access those images a clear possibility. With a reset of the software, the images and program were restored but this may be a harbinger of the possibility if I continue to rely exclusively on the digital realm.

There may be a point where the scope of experience is radically altered by the dependence of the digital. On one level there is the doubt about how immersive an experience can be without the tangibility of an object. Beyond that, there is the doubt of how much we can realize about our world if double-down on the belief that continued progress toward the virtual and the self-selected versions of reality that we can cocoon ourselves within will provide us with the experience and the wisdom that can come from the absence of illusion or digital mediation.

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