"One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong.
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?"
Simple nomenclature gives the naive answer: we are looking at two cameras and a phone. Two things specifically for taking pictures, and one for doing that and everything else. Two things bumpy with knobs and knurled rings, one as glossy smooth as a eunuch’s freshly shaved pate. Two special-purpose, dedicated devices, and the ultimate info-communicative Swiss Army knife of our age. Two machines rooted in yesterday, and one shaping tomorrow.
But suppose we ask an alien the question. E.T. sees two electronic devices packed with silicon, millions of transistors, powered by lithium-ion batteries, and one spring-driven machine. Two with liquid crystal displays, one with none. All three feature multi-element glass lenses designed to focus light onto a plane, but two put the light on a silicon sensor, while one focuses it on removable photosensitive film. Two self-focus the lenses with motors and feedback algorithms, while the other implements a kind of mechano-optical analog computer (a coupled rangefinder) allowing a user to manually calculate a focus distance. Two record the image on identical electronic chips in compatible file formats, while one relies on photochemical processes to recover a latent image. Two are the products of a space-faring race, one is a relic of planet-bound times.
Of course, classed by purpose, the phone is the odd one out. But in nearly every other way, the mechanical camera is a completely different beast from the kissing cousins of the phone and the digicam. Apart from the design requirement of holding a lens perpendicular to a sensor, the digital camera is a cosmetic homage to its mechanical predecessor, a decorative exterior wrapped around a functional core that is little different from that of the phone.
The superficial similarity between the two cameras helps conceal the truth of the more recent device. The new camera is a substantial consumer investment, but unlike the old camera (and like the phone) it depreciates ferociously. Its resale value will decrease in a stair pattern over several years as newer models are released, until it stops competing with the state-of-the-art and its value gradually sinks to some trivial baseline. If it experiences a fault in this later part of its life, its economic value drops abruptly and permanently to zero because a repair will cost more than the functional camera is worth.
Historically, obsolete objects have often passed through a trough of zero or negative value before resurfacing as antiques or fetishes of nostalgia. But it’s difficult to see this happening for digital cameras or much of the vast flow of digital detritus we’ve been generating for the last three decades. Apart from a few early, low-production-volume examples of technologies that might accrue collector value, this stuff becomes garbage and will stay garbage. Toxic garbage, cocktails of contaminants waiting to be spilled (examine your digital camera and you’re probably find a “10” circled by arrows, assuring you that all that nastiness will stay locked up for at least 10 years – a whole decade! – before you have to worry about it leaking into the world). These objects, the pinnacle of our production capacity, the most refined technologies we have made, are fundamentally disposable. Their potential functional lives are short, and their actual service lives, before they are replaced by “better” versions, even shorter. Minimizing the delta between those spans maximizes profits for producers and guarantees an ample supply of irreparable junk for the near future.
Locations of Digital Electronics You Own Today in 20 Years
Contrast this with the mechanical camera. Over fifty years old, its value is higher than that of the two-year-old digital camera. Its mythologized brand is partly responsible for this, but only partly: many, many mechanical cameras made from the 1950s to 1970s are worth much more now than digital cameras made ten years ago. And because they are valued and can be practically repaired, there is an ecosystem of skilled craftspeople in place that keeps them working, a virtuous cycle.
“Who gives a fig about the relative values of cameras?” you might say if you’re in a Shakespearean mood. “I just want take pictures!” To which I say, godspeed you happy snapper. None of this has anything to do with photography per se. But as a story of objects, of tools, I find it fascinating. We humans are tool-users and have always been in some way defined by the things we carry. Understanding the nature of those things and when they are not what they appear to be sheds light on ourselves.
The going flavor of consumer capitalism exploits our connection with objects mercilessly: our readiness to identify with and be identified by things, and our susceptibility to the notion that the new thing is better than the old thing, make us easy marks for salesmen. Photography stands out among creative practices for the conspicuous importance of the technologies of its production, so it’s easy to convince people that “better” cameras are better for the practice. Few would argue that “photography” on the whole is “better” now than ten or twenty or fifty years ago, but never mind, it's Black Friday!
Stubborn old cameras and their resilient value suggests that many of us do actually appreciate their relative strengths and the knock-on effects of their birth in a time before short-term obsolescence was a fundament of business plans. Perhaps cultural fatigue with disposable consumerism is building. Perhaps I’m just glorifying another way to purchase identity. I don’t have all the answers. But I like my old camera, in part because I appreciate how little it has in common with my new camera.