I’m sure you’ve heard of the idiom that too much of a good thing makes it bad. You can only eat so much chocolate before you feel sick, as ridiculous as that actually sounds. (Really, too much chocolate??) The reality though is that, like most idioms, its frequent usage is because it’s largely accurate. Doing something so much begins to devalue the purpose of doing it and will come with a negative consequence. Some of these are quite obvious, like feeling a bit queasy after the aforementioned chocolate binge, but plenty of others might be rather subtle.
Most people now have access to a device that allows them to take a photograph. In fact that’s been true for a while. Before smart phones and devices became so wildly possessed digital cameras weren’t exactly that expensive and came in so many different models that the distinction between a professional and amateur photographer was strictly the being-paid component and not really a signifier of a dramatic increase in quality that you might expect elsewhere. Even so, you were still restricted by needing to have the camera on you and really, you were unlikely to have it with you on your way round the corner to the supermarket. Sure you could chuck one in your bag and take it out if something amusing or interesting took your fancy, but they still mostly came out during big events, like a birthday party.
Even when camera phones (remember when that was a specific term?) came to be, the quality of the shots was usually so poor that in many cases it just wasn’t worth taking because you wouldn’t really be able to accurately capture what you wanted to. Of course this all changed when the megaton of the next wave of smart phone came along. Phone cameras had drastically improved and didn’t look poor and the connectivity of smart phones meant it was only a few clicks away from taking a shot to sending it out to the entire world, or at least that pocket of it you inhabited and could influence.
Now this is obviously common knowledge, but I think it’s worth remembering that it was a couple of steps from minimal camera coverage to seemingly everyone having access to a selfie-machine.
Where’s this all left us then and why haven’t you go to the point, you ask. Well, I’m getting to it, don’t push me!
Just a look on Facebook once a day shows it littered with pictures and they just don’t mean anything to me. Even if you ignore all the other images that you get bombarded with, I feel like I’m inundated with stuff to look at that it just washes over me, I don’t take in any of the particular details. And the thing is, it’s been like this for a long while. There was a time when everyone was making fun of apparent idiots (read now: trend-setters) taking pics of their breakfast or their Converse shoes (and it was always Converse) because of how silly and inane it all seemed and then mockery became ironic usage became habit. That’s not to say that a lot of pics are inane in that way and certainly, I can see an argument for having food presentation that is interesting be worth taking a pic of (and if you were trying to describe the meal, having a visual representation would probably help your imagination work) it’s just that there’s only so many feet-up-with-plate-and-glass-in-front-of-bright-light/sun-set shots I can take in before they mush into one and that amount isn’t exactly too high in the first place.
By having the means to take pictures of anything and everything I actually think our observational skills have drastically declined. What we see now is immediate and looking to the side is a novel concept. The unusual becomes usual and uninteresting. There’s very little context to a lot of pictures I see now other than the obvious “I was here and needed to document that.”
I’m not going to say that before smart phones every picture taken was something of a definable high quality, but I think the noise to signal ratio was far more weighted to the latter. Hell, if you think back to film, you had to make every shot count because you had limited chances to get it right and you needed to save room for later. As a technological progression, I’m alright with the numerical limitation being removed, but it opens the flood gates and completely shifts that ratio to the former. We lose that critical eye and the need to ask “Is this the one?” for “So long as everyone is smiling this is a good picture.”
It’s hard to entirely say though that everyone having access to high quality pictures is a strictly bad thing as it does mean more memories can be forged, but that doesn’t change the mass of noise that’s created. Nor do I want to have a snobbish attitude of “Why are you taking a selfie? It’s so pointless!” because something being fun is usually enough of a justification to do it, but in a lot of cases there doesn’t seem to be much consideration for the following step apart from what filter to apply and if it’s going to be shared on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram first.
And here’s the main thing I see, especially given the fact I work with children a fair amount of time; the people who grew up without knowing the limitation to taking a picture are capturing everything, but in doing so aren’t really capturing anything at all. That this then gets shared online without a real education for the impacts that carries means that so many people are putting out a lot of information about themselves into the world without really thinking that they’re doing it. As I joked with someone, “On the plus side, in the future it won’t really be scandal to have a silly photo of you from your past be brought up given that everyone will have one and it won’t be a big deal.”
Whenever I go to any sort of party I know that really, I don’t need my camera with me because almost everyone else will be able to take a picture and they can just share it. The likelihood I’ll want a picture of something someone else won’t is so small that I’m not too worried about missing anything and it allows me to enjoy and experience what it is first-hand. It can become so easy to view life through a screen that blurs out the noise around without realising that you’re just adding to the noise in a different way. We’re so engaged in documenting everything that we forget to actually experience it first. It’s the simulation of a lot of modern life.
So here’s my parting shot, no direct conclusion, but instead a challenge for you. Take one less picture a day. Let your mind waver for just a second before you decide to snap something. One a day, shouldn’t be too hard, right?