Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Context Lost

The computer can't tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what's missing is the eyebrows.
-- Frank Zappa

Context is lost with technological advancement.

Back in September, Sunday finally succeeded in getting rid of Cyd. Smashingly brilliant! One of the best parts of the evening was when Sunday broke out her 10 year old Polaroid camera. When I first met Sunday and the topic of her camera came up she said, "I love it. Instant gratification." Today, not only is the gratification still instant, it's just downright freaky.

Ironically, every day we move into the digital age we lose context. Or, life.

My wife and I just purchased a 5 megapixel camera that replaces our 2 megapixel camera. We take thousands of pictures and keep a fraction of them. We regularly hand the camera over to our three year old son to take as many pictures as he can (yes folks, I predict in about 17 years an unprecedented revolution of photographers who've been taking photographs nearly their whole lives). We store our pictures with an online service and view them in perfectly formatted HTML tables or play them in high definition slide shows. We change them at will from perfect color, to black and white, to sepia, and back to color again.


I can remember wondering why everyone was so unhappy or serious in all of the childhood pictures of my great grandmother, born in 1891. Later someone explained to me that they all had to sit very still for a period of time so that the exposure would take. That's a story behind the story in every one of those photographs. How uncomfortable must they have been? What kind of day must they have had preparing for the photograph? What must have been going through a mother's mind anticipating the proposition of getting her child to sit still..?!

But even in my lifetime, context has been lost. I possess two photo albums filled with roughly 50 of my baby pictures. The photo paper is thick and the ink is tinged a subtle greenish-brown. Cameras, film, and film processing were not cheap for a new family. The photos have faded with time.

The physical nature is gone, and with it, the experience it embodied. The same can be said for programmers who turned in punch cards once a week to get processed. I cannot imagine the cost of a single compilation error in that system!

But maybe there is a continuity. Maybe one day my son will lament the day when Microsoft endorsed a technology incompatible with JPEG and his parents failed to convert the thousands of JPEG's they had of him. Maybe my daughter will lament the tens of thousands of digital files that we've entrusted to her but organized in a naive, 2004-like manner that is so counterintuitive to the technologies she uses. Maybe static photographs will be our lost context.

(In any case, Sunday, thanks for porting those photos to the 21st century!)