Photo courtesy/TED books

Death By Curation

The problem with recording everything

Damon Brown
Sep 3, 2013 · 3 min read

Photographer Clayton Cubitt recently blogged about The Decisive Moment. Coined by famed artist Henri Cartier-Bresson, it is essentially the one picture frame, the one pose, the one idea that truly captures an event. Cubitt argues that The Decisive Moment is dead. Technology killed it.

Imagine an always-recording 360 degree HD wearable networked video camera. Google Glass is merely an ungainly first step towards this. With a constant feed of all that she might see, the photographer is freed from instant reaction to the Decisive Moment, and then only faced with the Decisive Area to be in, and perhaps the Decisive Angle with which to view it.

In other words, it’s about being at the right place, not about being aware of the right thing and consciously documenting it at the right time. We can rely on always-on tech to do the latter for us. We are shifting from documenting to curating.

Cubitt is spot-on with his analysis of modern times – it’s definitely worth reading the entire post on PetaPixel – but I can’t share his enthusiasm in viewing more information, more data, and more stuff as the great liberator. His post obviously focuses on professional cultural documenters, but, as millions support Instagram, Vine, and Twitter, his idea applies to all of us now.

As I discuss in my new TED book Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed with Documenting Our Lives Online, it’s not like we passively have our gadgets take in all the data and we can just move on with our lives.

Our physical keepsakes come with a price: Closet space. Our new virtual anchors of memory take up no space at all—they live in the digital commons. But the price we pay is managing them: Sorting them by audience and positioning them for distribution in one of our networks.

The way we are using technology, our idea is that we document everything now and sort it out later. We’ll take 1,000 pictures during the honeymoon and pick out the best one later, or we’ll capture every moment at our friend’s birthday party and hope one moment we Tweeted about will be memorable. The other 999 pictures or 40-some-odd Tweets will become orphaned “digital artifacts”, the proverbial cardboard boxes of junk sitting in our garages. We’re assuming we’ll have the time and stamina later to sort out all this virtual junk to find that diamond in the rough – that Decisive Moment. At that point, the Decisive Moment might as well not even exist.

Wearing an always-on Google Glass isn’t going to help us capture all the wonderful moments in our lives, just as much as walking around with a constantly-on tape recorder won’t help us appreciate all the interesting conversations we have throughout the day. If anything, the pile-on of data numbs us from even recognizing The Decisive Moment when it actually happens. The taped-down record button can lull us into a false sense of security, as we assume that we don’t have to be fully present since things are being recorded for us to enjoy later. Meanwhile, the continuing-growing pile of recorded data to sort through becomes ever more intimidating.

Having an always-on presence isn’t solving anything, but just shifting the burden of curation to later and actually increasing the amount of work for the user. Technology should be encouraging thoughtful, unobtrusive curating of the moment, not overwhelming, excessive curation at the back end. The more data we get, the more likely that Decisive Moment will get lost among the other non-consequential digital artifacts piling up.

Recording everything is as bad as recording nothing.

    Damon Brown

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    BiteSized Entrepreneur books http://bit.ly/bitesizedbooks TED speaker http://bit.ly/DamonTalks Cuddlr cofounder (acquired) @inc column http://bit.ly/SaneSuccess