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Posts Tagged ‘digital’

I was at a junk market, where I found myself seduced by an Agfa Silette, a commercially successful camera, from the 1950’s. It fit the hand well. Instinctively, the thumb sought the lever, and cocked the shutter, finger moving easily to the release. It would have been a fine camera to use in its day. Later models, with the built-in light metering, would have been the bees knees, and the mainstay provider of pictures for the family album. I pressed the shutter, but there was no click. The shutter was broken. This camera’s journey was over. Still, the guy wanted twenty quid for it.

There’s a fashion for these things, I know, but the lenses on most of these old timers are pretty much gone now, with mould seeping between the elements. This one was heading the same way Much as it’s nice to see old tech still functioning, when it’s beyond repair, you need to let it go. There are cameras of this vintage, still in good nick, but they’re rare. And people pay good money for them. But why? Would it be for show, do you think? Did it even matter if the camera was junk? Would it simply end up on a hipster’s book-shelf, along with coffee table tomes of Ansel Adams and David Bailey?

You can still get film. Indeed, according to the marketing, it’s seeing something of a revival just now. A roll of 36 shots will cost you a tenner. You can get it processed for another a tenner, even digitised. So, twenty quid for 36 shots, half of which will be duds, and the rest murky, when ten thousand clear shots, on a digital camera, won’t cost you anything. And these weren’t easy cameras to handle. You had to know photography. Without the ability to read the light, the exposure was guesswork, ditto focusing. There was a skill to it, one your Uncle Fred, the camera buff, took pride in. But there are no Uncle Freds any more. Now everyone’s an expert, because the camera does it for you. Even the camera on a cheap phone will knock spots off this old thing.

The first, low resolution digital cameras were enough to make me abandon film, twenty years ago. I went from a sophisticated Pentax film SLR, with a bag full of lenses, to a simple, fixed focus Kodak. And what I lost on the one hand, in optical quality, I felt I had gained plenty. I could shoot a hundred pictures, review them on the camera, and delete the ones I didn’t like, thus making room for more shots, without having to change the film roll. I could apply techniques with software I would have needed a darkroom to do before. And I could print my own photographs.

Then, over those twenty years, and like all digital technology, cameras have seriously overtaken their analogue cousins. Whether in darkness or full sun, they’ll grab a usable image that would have been impossible with film. The software for post-processing is endless in its variety. It renders the dark-room obsolete, moving it onto your computer. And yet,…

I was still drawn to this old camera. It fit the hand so well? I’d disposed of my film cameras years ago, and never looked back. And if you really must have that quirky, murky, antique look, you can simulate it in digital. No need to go to the trouble and expense of reverting to film. Is it because it’s all too easy now? Do we prefer some limitation? Does the surprise of one or two cracking shots, from a roll of 36, trump the ease of a decent shot every time?

All right, I think my interest was most likely on account of a camera of similar vintage making an unexpected appearance in my current work in progress. A Voightlander. I don’t know what it means, nor why it should be a Voightlander, and not an Agfa, like this one, or a Kodak. But there it is, and it’s been teasing me to make sense of it.

It’s about images from the past, right? A way of seeing, that we’ve lost? Too much of the left-brain’s utility, while the right-brain’s existentially holistic overview diminishes, and leaves us barren, lobotomised, robotic creatures. Or am I overthinking it? The metaphors are endless and beguiling. And maybe if this camera had been a Voightlander, and working, for a tenner, I might have bought it for the vibe, though not for the use of it. As it was, I put it back.

Metaphorical explorations are best kept in the heart and the head. No sense going literal with this one. But clearly there’s a message here, and it’s demanding to be explored. I’m strictly digital these days, but I’ll be the first to admit there’s still something tempting, indeed something very much of the romantic, about those old cameras. I mean, just imagine the times they might have known, and the things they might have seen, when their eyes were still bright.

And there, I think, I have my answer.

Thanks for listening.

Header image, original source file, attribution: Jonathan Zander, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons. Crop and further editing in Luminance HDR, and Corel PP9 by the author. Edited image subject to same terms.

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mariaWe spend on average around eight hours a day staring at a screen. We are also moving our lives online. Much of the paperwork essential to identity and legal responsibility – certificates, documents and such – are no longer printed and posted out to us, but digitised, stored in “the cloud” and accessed through our computers.The same goes for entertainment: photographs, music, video, books, games,.. they are all losing their physical nature, becoming digital and accessed through a device.

On the one hand this is very convenient, but I wonder if I am alone in finding it also slightly disturbing. Is the “place” I actually I live becoming irrelevant. I can be removed to the other side of the world tomorrow, yet pick up the online elements of my life without missing a beat. But what kind of life is that, exactly? And what if I were to lose access to this information? Clearly I would still be alive, but it would be as if I had not existed before – no records, documents, pictures, words, music,… nothing to show for my life.

What is it then in life that defines us?

In the haste to digitise, it feels like we’re shovelling the earth out from under our feet, feeding the machine with everything we deem necessary to our being, indeed to civilisation itself – our memories, our laws, our art, our possessions. We do this because it is efficient, but at the same time it minimises our concept of home to the point where it risks disappearing altogether. Is this what we really want?

The elimination of the home would suit the machine-based global corporate intelligence. After all, businesses no longer deem it necessary to advertise their actual physical location. Corporate location is a flexible concept – here today, there tomorrow, depending on the market, on whatever is most efficient. This is made all the easier since these corporations no longer make anything. Employees too must therefore step onto this conveyor of placeless, facelessness. We interview for a job in Manchester UK, end up working out of an office in New York, but much of the time we are in the air between any city you care to mention, anywhere in the world. And the higher we climb within this corporate intelligence, the more placeless, faceless, and the more homeless we must become.

In the globalised world of work, it doesn’t matter your home for most of your life is an aeroplane seat and a plastic hotel room. It doesn’t matter your world is contained behind a single anonymous window in a glass and concrete edifice that is both anywhere and nowhere at the same time, because your true window on your world, the only world that’s beginning to matter is your laptop, your handheld, your ubiquitous touchscreen interface. We are increasingly viewing our world from within the machine, not because the machine serves us, but because we have fallen inside of it.

Yet when I look through all those Instagram and Flickr streams, the imagery speaks of a love of place, a love of the world beyond the screen. I see sunsets, lakes, trees, mountains, cities too – even the grungy bits – also a love of home, of private places, private spaces, places with a physical location that’s familiar and means something. I see coffee cups on tables, fruit in a basket, pets, loved ones, and all the things we own and take pleasure in – our cars, bikes, clothes, our fancy wristwatches, an old valve radio that sits in defiance of the times, a guitar, a battered but exquisitely comfy armchair. How much of this, I wonder, is a lament for what we are in danger of losing?

Religious teachings tell us material things do not matter, that in fact it’s spiritually limiting to identify one’s sense of self with stuff. So the machine might argue it is doing us good, rendering such symbols of identity obsolete, stripping them from us, leaving us nothing tangible of ourselves but our skins. But it’s also through stuff we exercise our sensual enjoyment of the world.

The coffee tastes good, the leather of the watch strap smells exquisite, as does the jasmine and the autumn leaves. The sunset over the ocean stills us with its palpable silence. The sound of the leaves on the trees in the breeze, the feel of the wind in our faces,… we cannot digitise these things. Is what I see online a nostalgic lament for a world that is slowly slipping through our fingers?

The machine is unashamedly and woodenly Victorian in outlook and function. As such it is like all the machines that have gone before it – amoral and unconscious. Get too close to such a thing and it will tear your arm off, because it’s not smart enough to know you’re there at all. Its function is profit through the algorithms of increased sales and internal efficiency. And to the machine the most efficient solution for the human beings who serve it is for us to exist in a form of semi-suspended animation, in rented, minimalistic, cell-like rooms that cater for the basic bodily functions, while allowing us to perform those few tasks remaining to biological entities via whatever interface the machine comes up with. And when we fall on the wrong side of the efficiency equation, we find ourselves erased, our access denied.

We think our memories, our increasingly digitised lives are becoming safer, more secure, that the online world, the machine, even provides us with a kind of immortality, that those precious old family photographs are safer scanned and held online than kept in a dusty old shoebox, vulnerable to fire and flood. My blog, my Instagram feed will outlive me, yes, but now I’m wondering if their function will only be to serve as a last cry, the lament of an inmate locked inside a machine. For a long time I have seen my future bound up with this thing. Now I am wondering if I should find ways of escaping. Were it not for the voice it grants my creative urges, I would run screaming. Or is it that we find more the secret to what it means to be alive by reflecting on the machine which is essentially dead.

We must remember we are only permitted this storage for our online personal belongings in exchange for permission for the corporate computers to scan and plunder it in order to profile, locate, and target us for advertising. It’s a crude exchange and, like anything else in business and technology, liable to a step change when something new comes along. When the clever, faceless, homeless corporate brains work out a way for product adverts to be subliminally and legally transmitted directly into our heads, then all the computers holding all our lives, so meticulously recorded by ourselves, will be deemed inefficient – at which point, unless we pay for their upkeep, they will be deleted. And when we die, and the direct debit bounces back,… yes,… deleted.

So when you are posting pictures of the things and of the places you love, when you are writing about your life to your imaginary reader, do not mistake the picture or the writing for the life you lead. It’s obvious really, the online life lacks the sensuality that makes us human. So beware this digitisation of the world. Question it. And in the mean time make your homes with impunity, fill them with your idiosyncratic nick-nackery, smell the coffee, stroke your pets, make love, go out and watch the sun setting,… be what your are. Be sensual.

And remember,…

We are not the machine.

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dreamingIn my story, the admittedly somewhat awkwardly titled Enigma that was Carla Sinclair, I tell of a man obsessed from the outset of the personal-computing revolution with creating a virtual world as home for his imaginary muse, Carla. He begins with the Sinclair computers of the late seventies, continues through the later IBM and Microsoft Pentium machines, and beyond to roughly the present day. Each advance in technology allows the construction of a bigger, more detailed and more complex virtual world, as well as a more realistic and artificially articulate manifestation of the muse Carla. His window on this world is his computer screen through which he peers voyeuristically at the autonomous antics of this virtual female companion. And through a queer mix of coding and philosophy he sees Carla grow from a crude 2D cartoon into a 3D virtual phenomenon, a phenomenon to which he devotes his entire life.

To save you the bother of reading the story, **spoiler alert** the conclusion is that the virtual nature of the world he creates, although fascinating, is ultimately unimportant, that in exploring it he is in fact exploring a part of himself, that he and Carla are different sides of the same coin, and you don’t need a computer to work that out. My own minor revelation regarding virtual worlds is that, whilst much hyped, they are of interest only at a trivial level. Contrary to their early promise they actually offer nothing of any practical, philosophical or psychological value. Worse, they can be a wasteful distraction, even harmful if we invest in them the hope of eventually gaining more from them than they are capable of delivering.

carlacoverLike our hero, I have for a long time been surfing a fascination with virtual worlds, but my attempts to create my very own Carla experiment have all failed. This is due to a combination of the limitations of even the most powerful of our machines, but mainly to my own incompetence with modern coding languages. I can use software tools to create the doll-like model on which I paint an image of the Carla’s skin. I can also generate rudimentary movement across a landscape by creating a walking animation and poking her about with the arrow keys, but to code some form of artificial and interactive “intelligence” is quite beyond my ability. And anyway, I can see it would be rather like playing oneself at chess: even were I to succeed, there could be no illusion of reality, no meaningful suspension of disbelief, since you always know for any given input what move is coming next – because you’ve programmed it.

An alternative to the pseudo-autonomous Carla is to opt for one of the ready made virtual worlds on offer, like Linden Labs’ Second Life. I have waxed lyrical about this place in the past, but nowadays find the experience of it rather dull and sterile. Here, the behaviour of our mannequins is not scripted. Instead, we push them around like dollies, as proxies of ourselves. They are not archetypes then but Avatars. For me this immediately led to some confusion in that my instinct, after the Carla experiments, was to create for myself a Carla-like avatar, in other words a female. But for in-world exploration, this means I find myself “living” as that female, and this is perplexing when it comes to my relations with others in the virtual space, since the males I meet all want to see me undressed, and the women all want to take me dancing and clothes shopping. And of course I do not want to be Carla, but recognise that in a more complex way, it is Carla who wants to be me.

So, for practical purposes Carla morphs into the safer and less confusing shape of a generic male avatar, yet one, unfortunately, through whose eyes I see the virtual world in a less than philosophical light. It looks unreal, this world, because it is unreal. The landscape is a crude illusion, at times grotesque. The crudely realised trees sway by way of algorithm, and if I want to turn the shadows on in order to enhance the illusion of reality, my computer grinds to a halt. There is also the disorienting phenomenon of familiarising oneself with a particular region of the world, only to return the next day to find it has been deleted.

snapshot_001Imaginative play is something better left to children. As children we speak through our toys, our dolls, our teddy bears. We invent scenarios for them to enact, worlds for them to inhabit. It is a developmental stage, testing, helpful in bringing into consciousness what would otherwise lie undeveloped – something about the resolution of conflict in relations, and the working towards the more tranquil human goals of a Platonic love for others, and thereby a universal harmony – something like that anyway. But as adults, impaled by now on the spike of our fully formed egos, we are all too ready to pervert our potential, our games tending more instead towards the banal acquisition of power, status, and sex.

As a last resort, I created for myself an off-line Second-Life like world where Carla could live alone. And, like with the Lake Isle of Innisfree, I built myself a cabin there, thinking to find at last the virtual peace for which I have for so long been searching. But again, it’s not very realistic, and I realise it’s also lonely knowing no one else can ever discover us – me and Carla, in our hiding place. There is a thing in humans that gauges the existence of our selves partly in relationship to others, and to deny it is in part to deny life. Indeed under these circumstances, the virtual becomes more of a prison, when what Carla wants is to escape and mingle freely in conscious reality, but without having to submit to the power, or the tyranny of others.

This, as our hero, and creator of the titular Carla Sinclair discovers, is alchemy. But the true alembic is not the man-spun glass, nor the coded virtual world, but the authentic “inner ” world of the psyche envisioned through the lens of the imagination. Only through our exploration of the infinite nuances of this authentic space do we stand a chance of making way in real life. It’s not without its dangers, but anything else leads to incarceration in an intricately coded labyrinth of our own creation, one we might spend a lifetime exploring, but in which everything we see is inevitably a shadow of what it’s actually supposed be.

At another level “real” life is like this too, but that’s another story.

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