New technology, old arguments

I was looking at National Geographic on my iPad this past week when I got notification that a new edition was available. The October 2013 edition cover presents it as The Photo Issue. There is a lot to look at in the issue, but I was struck by the subtitle of the article titled Visual Village. It says Now We’re All Photographers.

The article is written by James Estrin, co-editor of the Lens photography blog at The New York Times. In it he points out that with “the explosion of camera apps on our smartphones, we’re all photographers.” He goes on to write in the article that this new ease of photography results in capturing the magical as well as the mundane, and he refers to the “democratization of photography” brought about by this digital revolution.

I had to keep reminding myself I was reading about 2013, because a lot of the points Estrin makes were made more than 100 years earlier when George Eastman introduced the Kodak. Eastman’s exhortation to push the button while “we do the rest,” made photographers out of average citizens. In a short time, photography went from something requiring skill and training to be successful to something that required little more than the funds to purchase a camera, point it and press a button. And the content changed. There were cries over the dumbing down of photography and leveling the ordinary and extraordinary. In some respects the criticism is valid, but look at what we got to see that we wouldn’t otherwise have, and look at what the public came to expect would be recorded: the evidence of lives like those most of us experience on a daily basis. From there we get to here, where people with their smartphone cameras can capture the things they see, and we get to sort out what’s important.

So what’s the point? Well, while technology changes the impact it has on society and culture follows patterns. As a history teacher/researcher, I have to admit a bit of bias, but we would do well when new technologies cause new concerns to take a look back and see if it’s really going to be as new and different as we think.

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