Emerging Technology

How to develop a photographic memory without even trying

By Steven Johnson|Saturday, August 06, 2005
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS
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Illustration by John Hersey

In the 1880s inventor George Eastman hit upon an ingenious idea for making photographic film flexible so it could be stored in compact canisters instead of on heavy, fragile glass plates. The new film was portable enough to allow photographers to mail it to a developer and have their pictures sent back in a matter of days. Eastman built a camera around this new technology—the Kodak—and an entire industry was born. 

Eastman’s story is a classic example of the way declining costs can have radical effects on the way people use technology. Before his innovation, photography was a cumbersome and expensive process best suited to solemn official portraits. The Kodak made it possible for ordinary Americans to take snapshots at a reasonable cost, and so a whole host of everyday situations became fodder for amateur photographers: a child’s birthday party, a trip to the beach, a vacation.

We’re going through a comparable revolution thanks to the proliferation of cheap devices for snapping digital photographs, coupled with the near-infinite storage of the latest personal computers. Today the costs of taking a photograph of medium quality are rapidly approaching zero (that assumes you keep your photos digital—you’re paying at least $3,000 a gallon for the inks you use in a photo printer, and the paper that digital photos are printed on costs more than conventional photo papers). Many cell phones now come with integrated digital cameras that let you upload your photographs to your PC or your Web site with a simple click. If you want to take print-quality photos, you still need a stand-alone camera with a real lens. But if you’re just trying to capture a passing scene, the camera phones do the job—and they’re getting better with each new generation of phones.

The Kodak paradigm suggests that a radical decrease in cost will lead to a transformation in usage, and that’s exactly what we’re starting to see. Many amateur digital photographers are choosing to capture parts of their lives that wouldn’t have interested the Brownie and Instamatic generations. They take pictures of their breakfasts. They take pictures of their subway commute into work. They take pictures of a dreary office meeting that’s gone on too long. And they take way too many pictures of their cats. If the first revolution in photography was the change in subject matter, from formal events to special events, with the Kodak crowd taking pictures of times they wanted to remember, the cell phone crowd uses photography to celebrate the banal and the quotidian—they take pictures of events they want to forget.

Digital shooters also want relatives, friends, and even complete strangers to share their everyday experiences. Visit the public user pages at the photo-sharing site Flickr—purchased by Yahoo last year—and you’ll find massive archives of publicly shared photo albums, called photoblogs. Some of the albums include photos of weddings, graduations, and vacations, but others document the stray and decidedly nonphotogenic details of daily life, such as someone brushing his teeth in the morning or staring out the window of a commuter bus. Because Flickr photobloggers like to add descriptive tags to their snapshots, you can browse through images that involve “shaving” or “squirrels” or “orange juice.”

For someone raised in the Kodak era, taking photographs with no scenic or sentimental value seems like a form of madness. But photobloggers are trying to capture a life, with its inevitable mix of tedium, ritual, and rare flashes of excitement. Flickr photoblogs are close in spirit to diaries. When you look at a traditional family photo album, you get a skewed sense of what that family’s real life is like. (“You guys sure spend a lot of time standing around smiling in front of waterfalls.”) By contrast, if you sift through a photoblog, you get an immediate, visceral impression of daily routines, with little posing, few forced smiles, and hardly any waterfalls. Each such digital picture may be worth less—they’re not terribly pretty to look at—but a collection might well be of value.

Photoblogs are not purely extroverted. It’s nice to be able to share your cat pictures with perfect strangers, but it’s arguably more valuable to create a visual diary as an extension of your own memory. Inspect a Polaroid that you took of your college dorm room, for example, and you’ll inevitably find dozens of stray details about your life as a 20-year-old that you’d long ago forgotten. Likewise, even low-resolution camera phone pictures can be worth a thousand words. It takes time to jot down a paragraph or two describing your day at the office, but it takes only a few seconds to snap a few images. And because visual memory is so powerfully associative, when you see these images 10 or 20 years from now, it’s likely that a whole host of other memories from that day will come rushing back. Perhaps not as many memories as you would have if you dutifully wrote out diary entries Samuel Pepys–style each night, but who has that kind of time anymore?

Digital cameras are leading the way toward a passive diary keeping, in which common forms of personal technology churn along in the background. For example, I save all my e-mail messages—there are 13,023 messages in my in-box as of this morning—and hence have a passive diary tracking many of my most important conversations over the past four or five years, along with a shocking amount of spam. Reading through some of those old messages gives a remarkably vivid account of what my life was like back then: my obsessions and worries and small triumphs. And yet I didn’t need to spend a second thinking about creating this archive for posterity’s sake. I just carried on my normal e-mail business, and my computer took care of the archiving.

The cell phone manufacturer Nokia recently introduced a new software package for camera phones and Windows PCs called Lifeblog, which combines e-mail and the passive diary mode of the photoblog in one artful package. In essence, Lifeblog records a timeline of all the events that flow through your cell phone’s memory. Schedule an appointment, and Lifeblog will put it on the timeline; take a picture, and Lifeblog will archive it; get an instant message from a friend, send an e-mail, or retrieve a voice-mail message—Lifeblog will store it away in its running account of your digital life. When you sync your phone with your PC, you can launch the Lifeblog program and see a rendered account of your time—a long thread of information, woven together with images you’ve captured along the way.

The premise behind Lifeblog is not a new one: A number of computer visionaries, including Gordon Bell of Microsoft, have proposed software interfaces organized fundamentally around time, as a way of augmenting memory. Bell’s experimental project, called MyLifeBits, chronicles the entire flow of information through his life—everything from articles and books to phone calls and home movies. That kind of data storage might seem overly ambitious if you prefer to spend your time living your life and not archiving it. But the beauty of Lifeblog’s orientation around the cell phone and the camera is that it lets you record life away from the PC screen, without actively thinking about the archival process.

Skeptics should be reminded of the scene in Madonna’s self-obsessed documentary, Truth or Dare, in which she takes along an entire film crew—and her then boyfriend Warren Beatty—to her appointment with a throat doctor. As the cameras record the physician peering down at Madonna’s tonsils, Beatty says derisively from the shadows: “She doesn’t want to live off camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off camera. Why would you say something if it’s off camera? There’s no point in existing.” In Madonna’s case there were genuine costs—both of convenience and expense—associated with lugging a whole film crew around, so Beatty’s derision made sense. But in the near-zero-cost world of Flickr and Lifeblog, it’s easier to justify keeping a visual diary of our ordinary days. We do it because we like to remember.

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