I'm 39 years old, and I believe I will live to see the death of the camera as we know it today. A 10-year-old granddaughter will open a cupboard without my permission, irritating me, and ask, "What are these?"
I will sigh and say, "Those are cameras."
The insufficiency of this answer will be plain on her face.
"They're for taking pictures," I will add.
And she will look at me, puzzled, because the idea of a hulking thing that takes pictures just won't make sense to a young mind in that far-off year (I'm assuming, as one does, that I'll live to the optimistic side of the actuarial curve).
Today’s digital cameras are descended with astounding directness from the very first boxes with a lens to focus light onto a photo-sensitive surface. The basics were set down in a time before practical electric light, before powered flight, before a 25th territory joined the United States. Along the way it got easier to see what would be in the frame, and now cameras automatically expose and focus under a wide range of lighting conditions, and we don't need to develop film. That’s the 1820s up until the last few years, when cameras (in phones) became networked devices, which just means that nearly everyone on the planet can see our pictures right away. Which is progress, I suppose.
Here's the thing that the camera, in its march towards automation and better image quality, has been studiously ignoring for 200 years: most people don't want to take pictures. They want to have pictures. Of course, by "most people" (as is so often the case) I don't mean you and me. I mean everyone else. People who don't read essays about cameras. Many of them have been deserting the camera market in droves because their phones do a bang-up job of taking pictures, and the younger ones have probably never owned what we’d consider a camera at all. Or a telephone without a camera in it, for that matter.
What's really critical for us, though, is how many of them do still buy real cameras. Yes, they do, in the often mistaken belief that their phone isn't good enough. We depend on them, because there aren't really enough of us to drive a major global industry. But they aren't going to be around for us to kick much longer.
Like many things that can be successfully “predicted,” the agent of change is already here, but in a form that masks its significance. I believe that Google Glass-style augmented reality (AR) will become a thing in my lifetime. The technology will surpass the Google Glass quasi-prototype inflicted on us in 2013, by not being ugly and useless. I don't know exactly how it will work or what it will look like, but an army of beavering engineers (at Google, Apple, or somewhere we haven't heard of yet) will figure it out. Smartphones are already acting as prosthetic memories, and moving artificial intelligence up to eye-level will be the proverbial no-brainer when it can be done practically.
Did you know that Nokia was selling internet-connected phones in the 1990s? A few people loved them, but statistically, no one bought them. They were smart, but only relatively, a revolutionary idea that predated the technology necessary to make it practical (and the constellation of services that would make it desirable). Eventually more device makers piled onto the idea, but none really got it right. Readers of the technology press might remember feverish discussions of "convergence" as companies were trying to blend a pocket computer (then quaintly known as a "personal digital assistant," or PDA) with a cell phone. The results generally stumbled on both fronts, so badly that some industry observers, myself included, wondered what the point was. Why not have a nice little phone, and a nice PDA? Aren't we all men who wear pants with pockets? I was less enlightened and less perceptive back then, and perhaps not coincidentally I routinely wore cargo pants (and cargo shorts).
The defining consumer technology concept of this young century took off suddenly in 2007 when a maker of portable music players and expensive computers decided to shake the game up. By then I was wearing jeans with restricted pocket real estate, and was ready for the shift. Now only a few nerds and early-adopting business people remember the modern smartphone’s underwhelming, unpromising origins in those Nokia devices of the preceding century.
We're straying from cameras here, but bear with me. Google Glass is the smartphone at the turn of the millennium, looking like a half-baked solution in search of a problem. But our reality will be augmented eventually, because we (a more inclusive "we" that embraces us and them) are lazy and want all the help we can get processing the world, and because we hate to be alone with our thoughts. And the artificial intelligence we currently tap through our phones will need to see what we see in order to understand our needs before we do, which means some kind of imager will see everything we see. And boom, that will be the end of cameras, and of photography, as we know it.
Today we might praise a camera by saying that it functions "as an extension of the eye," but this is only a figure of speech. A true extension of the eye would need to be something that lives on your face, where your eyes are, and where an AR imager will be.
Perhaps, in the very beginnings of the AR moment, our imager might work like the crude camera on the first-gen Google Glass, which took a picture when you pressed a button on the frame or, god help us, said "OK Glass, take a picture" out loud. The engineers will do better than that -- remember, it took a while to figure out the touch screen. In the beginning, miniaturization will probably carry a penalty in terms of image quality, as with early phone cameras. But as happened with phones, the quality will eventually be good enough for most people.
At that point, most people, the huge majority, will never think about cameras again. The consumer market for dedicated cameras will end its long retraction with a final collapse. Today, there are conservatively half-a-dozen international companies competing fiercely for the serious consumer camera market. Some of them might remain in the professional image capture business: people’s everyday AR solution won't be suitable for billboard-sized advertising, and barring a cataclysm with few other upsides, the foreseeable future definitely includes advertising. But the days of deep-pocketed innovation in the consumer camera space will be over. The camera will be a backwater, niche object, perhaps a useful shorthand for indicating an era in fiction, and that is what I mean by the end of cameras as we know them.
This is a not, I swear, a cautionary tale. It's prediction, not proscription. If you detect a note of approbation in this essay, it's probably my precocious grumpy-old-man-ness. I am interested in cameras for their own sake, I find the course of their technological development exciting, and I can see from where I'm standing the end of their story as objects that we, as a culture, care about. Boo hoo. I'm not overly worried about humanity lacking objects to care about.
With the collapse of the consumer gear industry, there will be no ads in glossy magazines (probably no magazines at all by that point anyway), no constellation of websites lapping at Amazon's referral fees. The camera fandom we have today, which has little to nothing to do with photography but is still a source of satisfaction and belonging for its members, will cease to exist. Of course, that makes it sound like the rug will be yanked out from under it, as if a revered television series were canceled mid-season, a bustling forum suddenly knocked offline. Indeed, it may feel like that for the few of us who remain, but our upraised voices will be drowned in a sea of indifference. By then a lot of us will be dead, and the rest old, and the people who come after us might understand that cameras were once a thing, and they might not, but the world will have new things on its mind, like stylish personal flotation devices to deal with the rising oceans.
Stay tuned for the next installment, in which I explain how photographers will follow cameras into the void.