Sunday, April 18, 2010

Skyping the Past

Via Matt Yglesias: Chris Bertram ponders what is lost in the move from film to digital photography.
Such as what? you might ask. Well here’s one trivial example: ISO. In the digital age ISO is something that you rack up to get a sufficiently fast shutter speed at the aperture you want, subject to the constraint that you don’t want the image too noisy. So faced with a dark interior: no problem, just make the sensor more sensitive. With a roll of film things are quite different. Your ISO is fixed for the next 12 or 36 exposures and it may significantly constrain your choices. So, shooting in the sunshine with an old camera (fastest shutter speed 1/300) and 400 ISO film, I realised that there was exactly one aperture I could choose. (And old cameras are lovely and fascinating, btw.) More significant, perhaps, is the way that film trains your head and where the sheer flexibility of digital gets in the way to learning to see things in the right way. If I load a film camera with Velvia, I quickly become aware of vivid colours and blocks of colour. If I’ve got a roll of black and white film, then I quickly become more attuned to line, light and shadow.
This perpetual spinning up of technology is often as much about loss as it is about gain.  If suddenly everything is everywhere, then where is anything?  If I could download exact replicas from the Whitney they would be everything they are – except museum pieces. Would they be as interesting?

I think it is a great discussion to have. I’m certainly no relativist. But as with most things, in giving up something you also gain. For instance my wife complains about the iPod being so impersonal. I can’t recall the author but there was a piece recently spotlighted in The Week which mourned the loss of that special something one got from buying an old vinyl record and listening to it all the way through.

I completely agree. But at the same time a lot else was gained. Having access to your entire library at once, for one. The untethering of old distribution models for another: I spend as much money as I ever did on music, but it’s so much easier to find new bands and support the ones I really like instead of blowing $14 on a CD that I wasn’t that into.

This argument has always been around, and it has been a legitimate one. We love life, and become attached to experiences. Telephones degraded personal conversations. Automobiles degraded the smell of stables. Yet there have obviously been enormous benefits from both.

The trouble is in quantifying the cost/benefit ratio. How does having thousands of digital family photos compare to having hundreds from film? How does being able to watch many movies in HD at home compare to watching a few at the multiplex? All of it swirls in and out of experience. There may be one right answer, or there may be many in many different ways.

Personally, there are some things I miss about my old Pentax. One of these days I may dust it off (if I can find a roll of 35mm). I still have my record player. And I’ll still enjoy playing Wish You Were Here on it. But I’m looking forward to taking, then editing movies and pictures on my iPad-whats-it and posting them to the internet within days. I’m glad my kids can Skype with grandma – even if it means taking the 8 hour trip to see her seems just that little bit less urgent.

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