Part 1 of this essay addresses cameras. Now we get to photographers.
So, that's cameras. But circling back to my click-baity headline, what happens to the photographers? In my future so far, they’re still there, taking pictures, even if the camera never leaves their face.
That won’t last. At first, there will be a constant capture feature that lets people retrospectively “take” a photograph. Some cameras can already do this, but having full-time recording would change the game fundamentally. When something happens that you wish you’d shot, you just rewind and mark the image (or video clip -- I think the distinction will become ever-blurrier) for storage. From there it’s a small step to recording everything and keeping it, just in case you decide much later that it was worthwhile (and of course for more nefarious advertising reasons). This is the idea behind the apparently still-born but actually just premature “life-logger” product category, a viable idea in advance of the technological and social structures needed to make it widely appealing.
But it will appeal, especially when it’s a feature of something indispensable for a million other reasons rather than a ridiculous nerd necklace. And super-especially when combined with the kind of artificial intelligence that lets people have pictures without needing to take them. Even today, ordinary people generate more digital images than they know what to do with. The volume is overwhelming, and the accepted wisdom is that few people bother with the time-consuming task of separating out the best results from the mountain of not-quite-as-goods into a form that allows convenient perusal. Google again gives us a glimpse of the future: if you dump all of your photos into its cloud now, it generates little slide-shows, supposed highlight reels. The results today are hit and miss, but that will change. Soon an AI will do a credible job of sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Then it will make a little extra wheat by editing and combining images to create synthetic scenes that feel right even if they didn’t quite happen, that moment when everyone laughed at the same time (this future is also already here in stunted form, with apps that do this with some laborious handholding). The distance between what happened in a given moment and the content of an image will increase as computational photography grows more ambitious. The idea of a single "exposure" will be displaced by a summarizing of data over time that includes everything, highlight and shadow detail and smiles and everyone who was there, whether they were all in-frame together or not. The result will be a fiction in the service of truth: not only do people not want to take pictures, but they’re more interested in the feel of the moment, the truth of the experience rather than what, on the literal level of atoms and time, actually happened.
This is the moment when ordinary people stop being photographers and become sensor platforms. That sounds dystopian, but it’s totally appropriate within a restricted context. Most people never wanted to be photographers in the first place. They just wanted those pictures, to help remember what the Grand Canyon looked like or rub their Caribbean vacation in their coworkers’ faces. Which leads to a digression that perfectly illustrates why this is good for the common (wo)man. If you’ve ever been to a Major Site (Niagara Falls, the Eiffel Tower, etc.) you will see people approach to the designated distance, lift a camera or phone in front of their face, and then turn away to find the next Site on their itinerary. There are probably millions of people who have been to the Louvre, stood in front of the Mona Lisa, but have never actually pointed their retinas at the painting. They saw the preview on a screen. Then maybe they posted the picture on Facebook. This is how they take pictures, and this is what they do with them. I’m getting judgy here, but it’s absurd and I feel that it’s bad for people. They are tyrannized by their desire for pictures. Their picture-capture practices have blinded them to what life is for (that is, living). To be a simple platform, to look from alongside rather than through the camera, would be a liberation for them. The limitations of that platform, the human head, will lead to the most distant prediction I’m willing to make.
Not only do people want pictures without necessarily taking them, but they want to be in those pictures. To the extent, it was recently revealed, that they’re willing to balance a phone on a stick held out in front of them to get them. In public. In fact a lot of the folks in the above example have their backs to the Mona Lisa when they preview the image, so the Giaconde can smile over their shoulder in the selfie. The cameras we love have been woeful at addressing this need. Nobody uses self-timers. I guess there are those Casio TR selfie cameras, an apparently isolated bright spot in the market at large that put Casio's camera division in the black for the first time in nine years. We can argue about whether social media is the cause or the effect of this, but I don’t see it changing as long as humans remain descended from small-group-living primates.
The solution: image capture must be physically detached from the subject, the ex-photographer. The solution is a drone, or drones (though they probably won’t be called drones by then, given the distasteful connotations of violent death the word is accruing). Drones already serve as remote controlled cameras, enabling aerial photography in a way that was unimaginable a few years ago. That use case might appeal to a few of “us,” but it will never catch on with normal people. The breakthrough will come when you can pull a drone out of your pocket, toss it into the air, and have it capture imagery of you and your surroundings autonomously. This will be particularly easy if you’re at a Major Site, since there will be millions of suggestions in the cloud, helpfully annotated with more or fewer likes, for the best angles and flight paths. Eventually, even the decision to deploy the drone will be unnecessary, and they will either always be around or will emerge from somewhere when needed. In urban areas a kind of distributed imaging network might complement or even replace these personal swarms, imagers embedded in the environment (which would also have AR applications) that would mesh seamlessly with our forward-facing sensors.
Since I'm now talking about ubiquitous imaging, I'll stipulate that these scenarios require some social changes as well as technological progress. Google Glass was rejected not just by its users, but by everyone else. It freaked people out precisely because it conflated looking and photographing. Hence the media-ballyhooed banning of Glass from a number of restaurants, bars and other private-public places. Many of these businesses had security cameras, but never mind. Despite the fact that we are recorded hundreds of times a day, that we trade the most intimate details of our lives for “free” services, people get nervous about “being photographed.” I’m making this sound crazy partly because it is, and partly to show how easily it could change. In 1950, it was unimaginable that the post office would read every letter it delivered -- that's what Communists did! -- and here we are. Privacy norms are going in one direction, and I don't think we'll have to wait long for mores to embrace truly ubiquitous imaging. There's grisly dystopian potential in that direction, but I'm going to call "beyond the scope" or we'll be here all day.
I readily admit that I may be wrong in the particulars or exact timeline of these predictions, but I'll be surprised if my central thesis is disproved. So where does that leave us? Let's eat dessert first and indulge in some anticipatory nostalgia for the now, before it's gone. Let's be in our moment, appreciate that we're at the apex of a two-hundred-year arc that will fall off abruptly in the near future. And maybe, let's use this time to think about what photography means to us, personally and as a culture, and what we'd like the shape of the thing that replaces it to be.