I’m a little bit of an information pack rat. I started blogging before there were blogs, from UGCS. It seemed mildly neurotic and self involved and exhibitionist at the time. I mostly did it for my mom as a way to keep in touch without having to e-mail all the time. I’ve lost information here and there, even digital information (which seems kind of unforgivable), but analog too. Actually, I think more I just didn’t create much analog information. Five intense months of life, bicycling across Europe in 1994. Maybe 2 rolls of film total? Almost no photos from my summer in Russia. Both my parents were avid photographers. My dad professionally (though eventually he tired of the weddings and quinceañeras, and retreated to a steady stream of passport and similar photos… para las micas rosas, y para amnestia…) and my mom (so far as I can tell) more personally. Family pictures, documentarian style, wildflowers, and some prizes in the Fresno County Fair. But I never got into it, until I got a digital camera in 1999. My first piece of digital film was a 64 MB compact-flash card (incredibly, several times larger than the 20 MB hard disk in my first computer, which I got in 1993). It cost about $100. The camera was a Nikon Coolpix 700, with 2.1 MP sensor and no zoom. I bought it in an online auction (at Yahoo!) for $425, but had the seller leave me feedback at eBay (you could leave anyone feedback for anything back then). I mailed the check, and he mailed the camera, simultaneously, trusting each other. I still have our e-mails. The pictures could go directly to the web… via the web server I had running in my bedroom in Santa Cruz. I still have those pictures. No developing. No cost-per-click of the shutter. Kayaking through Southeast Alaska with Becky in the summer of 2000 I had to limit the resolution to 640 x 480 to avoid running out of space over 3 months, and I couldn’t use the LCD lest I run out of batteries, but at least I took the pictures, and kept them.
10 years, 4 cameras, and 11,000 digital photos later, I thought I’d lost my little pocket-sized Canon SD870 (an 8 MP sensor, with a 4 GB SD card) and ended up buying a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 and a 16 GB memory card to replace it (before finding the old camera… which I then sold to my mom’s old friend Hugh). This new camera and memory card cost about the same amount as my first camera altogether, but after just a couple of weeks, I can tell it’s different. Different even than my last one. I could describe how it’s different in digital photography technobabble, but the point is this camera take photos, not pictures. You get something out the back end that’s more like a slide or a negative than a print, and it gives me the freedom to screw up the picture however I want, which is dangerous, but also an incentive to learn how to make the camera do what I want. At the same time, because I have the raw data, it’s more possible to get around imperfections after the fact in software.
Software. I’ve gotten fed up with iPhoto’s halfway support for metadata. Apple is so good at making things easy, and their new geotagging and face recognition system is awesome, but they’ve fallen for the captive-data business model. Even Aperture, their pro-tool reportedly doesn’t deal with metadata well. Without metadata, that is, without the writing on the back of the snapshot or proof-sheet, or the notes stuffed into the evelope with the negatives, pictures slowly turn into anonymous heirlooms. Detached memories from a now lost world. Is that grandma? What city is this in? What year? Who is she kissing? My mom left boxes of thousands of pictures when she died. Who knows what’s in them.
Flickr seems to deal fairly well with metadata, importing anything embedded in your photos into its database, but it refuses to back-stamp any newly acquired information into them from their life on the web. iPhoto in combination with Flickr lets you do some of this… pulling in data from pictures in a shared album, and putting it into the iPhoto database. But it doesn’t really say exactly what its doing, and it doesn’t really seem to get all of the information, and can you count on it always being willing to export that information into the photos? In the next version maybe the embedded metadata will go away. It doesn’t seem to be a well documented feature, and it doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing they imagine their target market cares about. Yet. In ten years a lot of them will, like I do now, when a decade’s worth of memories have become faded and blurry, and are more likely be re-fabricated from whatever external record you made, than to have resided inviolate within your brain.
So for the first time in almost forever, I just went ahead and bought a piece of software: Adobe Lightroom. I probably could have gotten it via BitTorrent if I’d wanted to, but this service is important to me, and I need it to persist, and improve (the student discount helped too). I tried the best open source alternative first, and I hope they persist and improve too, but for this I really want it to Just Work. In combination with the excellent plug-ins from Jeffrey Friedl and Tim Armes, Lightroom lets me store the photos in a standard archival format, and really give them a rich, persistent context with metadata, and make them look better too which doesn’t hurt anything. Usability isn’t where it should be (not as good as iPhoto, but better than DigiKam), but the functionality is there, and while the tools themselves are not free (as in beer or speech), they let me liberate my information (which as you may have guessed, wants to be free), and in this context that’s more important. The new software and hardware have made me feel good about taking pictures again. About storing away my information like a pack rat. The camera has to be small (or it won’t get used) the software has to be easy (or it won’t get used) the information has to be plausibly persistent (or why bother creating it in the first place).
Somewhere in this process I imported my backup archive of all my old photos, from Ideotrope, from before this fall when the disks got full. Eleven thousand pictures flashed before my eyes, only a split second each, but it was a flashback through the last third of my life. I didn’t let the import complete. Those are images only, without the context that the database of annotations contains. I need to pull that in too, or I’ll start adding new metadata to these old pictures, and just have to resolve the conflicts (merge the DBs) later. But it’s all doable. It’s within reach. I feel good about my information life again.
Why do I even care? Because Henry David Thoreau and Charles Darwin have blogs. Because of the three Promethean plays that Aeschylus wrote, only the first today survives. I hold the persistence of information, and even more of knowledge, of understanding, of sentience, as having an intrinsically positive value. We only know in retrospect what we wish we hadn’t lost. With how cheap and easy saving digital information can be, I see little reason not to basically save it all, and decide later what we want to know again. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Young knew everything in their day. They lived in that strange and I can only imagine euphoric window of time when knowledge was both relatively accessible, and so limited as to be close to entirely comprehensible by a single gifted individual. But the accessibility of that knowledge meant that it would not remain limited for very long, and ever since then, what we know has ballooned exponentially, beyond what any one of us knows. The number of as-of-yet unmade connections between the things that we know has grown even faster.
When we can put more than an entire human lifetime’s worth of video on a disk in your pocket, how can anyone make sense of the information we have? Who will go back and read the gigabytes of electronic communications I’ve accumulated when I die? Who will pan across the map of my tens of thousands of geocoded images? It won’t be people. Not in the way I may go to my mom’s boxes one day soon, and dig through her slides, and digitize them, and think when they were from, and where. I think it will be a collaboration between people and machines. There will come a day, not so far off, when our grandchildren can ask the family computer to tell them a story about their grandparents, and the machine, which has seen all the photos, and read all the diaries and e-mails, and transcribed all the video, who knows the places and dates and names, maybe not just of ourselves, but of the people we encountered and knew, will be able to tell that story, in a way a human child can understand and enjoy and appreciate. We might walk the streets of a 22nd century city, and ask the machine, what did this place look like a hundred years ago, when we still had oil, before the sea level rose, and have an overlay provided. And looking at the people in that picture. We’ll ask, who were they? And the machine will know. An annotated reality. An inter-temporal panopticon.
If you had that tool today, wouldn’t you use it wandering around Boston, or Tikal, or Rome, or Samarkand, or Xi’an? Wouldn’t you wander backwards through your family tree to find the characters? I know I would. There are great people we’ve utterly forgotten. Great thoughts irrevocably lost. Once upon a time today was the impossibly distant, unimaginable future. When has that ever not been true?