As We Become Cameras

Wearable cameras will be ubiquitous. We’ll barely notice.

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers).
—Susan Sontag, “The Image-World” (1973)

More photographs have been taken in the past year than were taken on all film combined. More than 2 trillion photos were shared last year, perhaps twice or more were captured and sit dormant on phone hard drives. This says nothing of video.

Sontag wrote the above from the gentle upward slope of the exponential curve of image-creation. She could probably feel the slight breeze of acceleration, but her face would melt at the velocity images have attained in the decade since her death.

The history of images in one specious graph

Humanity’s appetite for creating, sharing, and consuming images appears insatiable. To do some back-of-the-envelope math:

(Images perceptible per second) × (Waking seconds per day) × (Human population) = 10 × 57,600 × 7,400,000,000 = 4.3 quadrillion

The upper limit on global image consumption is 4.2 quadrillion per day, or 1.6 quintillion images a year, give or take.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter’s ruthless pursuit of dominance in video needs no further explanation.

Before images, there was time

Humanity’s appetite for time grew on a similarly aggressive curve.

Before the industrial revolution, it was uncommon for clocks to have minute hands. Only a very select class could afford a private timepiece until the 20th century.

Until the 1840s, time was local and highly variable. Each town set its own clock, from which private clocks would be roughly set by hand. The time in Pittsburg might be 27 minutes earlier than that in New York and no one much cared.

The railways made it possible to cross between these esoteric times much more frequently than by horse or foot, and demand for time expanded. Initially, time was an industrial substrate: running efficient trains required coordinated, well-publicized time across long distances.

The market for time exploded alongside the growth of rail, and by the 1870s time was a hot luxury item. In Paris, private residences, factories, and watchmakers’ shops could buy time: a special clock outfitted with a pneumatic synchronization mechanism was installed on the premises and linked by underground tube to a central time pump that dispensed time in the form of puffs of air. Any ambitious gentleman subscribed to this service, paying handsomely for time.*

“Pneumatic Unification of Time: The Control Room” circa 1880 From Compagnie Générale des Horloges Pneumatiques, Archives de la Ville de Paris via Peter Galison’s book Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time

In the early 20th century, time became a commodity. World War I saw the introduction of wristwatches to servicemen for coordinating trench warfare. The digital computer and eventually the Internet required time on an even more extreme scale. Without ubiquitous, precise (and to a lesser degree accurate) time, none of the software protocols involved in delivering this article to your screen would be possible.

These days, time is so common it is invisible. Within reach of me right now are at least ten milliseconds-precise clocks (iPhone, Android, Kindle, stereo, desktop, laptop, oven, TV, cable box, digital watch), most of which are kept accurate by syncing continuously, wirelessly, with an atomic clock. Still, our time-appetite is never sated: Stock traders are working hard against physical barriers to coordinate their process below the millisecond.

Like images, a capitalist society requires time.

In the 19th century, this ubiquity of time was far beyond the realm of fiction. Time seems to us a true fact of the world only because we have been steeped in so much of it for so long. The exponential expansion of time snuck up on us.

Creating even more images

By 2020, 80% of the world will be in possession of a physically unlimited camera attached (mostly) to an instantaneous global image distribution network. This will also be the screen that allows access the visual experience of the rest of the world.

Smartphones still require a complex series of time-consuming gestures to create and distribute an image. An exponentially increasing appetite for images, as a practical matter, requires exponentially increasing creation. Wearable cameras will take care of that.

Wearable image-creation technology is here today. An Alibaba search turns up dozens of Shenzhen manufacturers able to produce 1080p, wifi-enabled cameras from commodity components for less than $50. I have a few of these on my desk — they’re not polished, but were Apple (or Xiaomi) to take up the project, a workable design and price point is easy to imagine.

Self-portrait as Glasshole (Someday this will read as kitschy fun, not reputation-destroying)

Google Glass was an abject failure as a consumer device. This may seem strange, the wearable camera being by far its most well-implemented feature.

Glass failed because it was a tool for creating an order of magnitude more images before they were ready to be consumed. Skeptics rightly asked “Are you taking a video of me right now?” because there was no conceivable place to view such images. Our appetite hadn’t grown large enough, nor had the software to cater to it. Beme, Snapchat, Facebook, and likely dozens of others are building that consumption software right now.

(Technology for consuming images has always lagged behind technology for creating them. Color television format wars spanned a decade, and even that during a period when TV shows were still finding their footing beyond imitating vaudeville.)

Infinite vision

What happens when images are integrated as fully into our reality as time?

We are approaching a world in which visual and auditory presence at a distance—seeing as another, instantly—is not a rare luxury good, but a basic assumption of society and industry. The superpower of unbounded remote vision is becoming mundane.

Nothing, of course, is inevitable. We could rein in our image appetite before wearable cameras become necessary. But there are just as many possibilities for human flourishing as there are for malice in an infinite-image world. (We will see plenty of both.)

Sontag’s image-world is dark and instrumental: images are class succor and control. Logical enough from the perspective of 1970s photography, in which camera ownership and image distribution were limited to the relatively powerful. The era we are in the midst of, with a profusion of cheap, miniature, wearable, networked cameras and screens, is quite different.

As they become ubiquitous, I doubt we will think of these things as cameras much longer. We hardly think of the tiny quartz wafers inside every integrated circuit as “clocks,” if we think of them at all. Cameras will become equally invisible facilitators of remote vision.

The ubiquity of time makes stamping it with a moral judgement absurd. We don’t fear or reject time, it is simply part of what is admirable about our reality (instant navigation, the Internet), and also part of what is less so (irrational obsession over productivity, nuclear warfare).

We have already become clocks. We will soon become cameras. What we do with that power is up to us.

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*For more on the history of time and Einsteinian phyiscs see Peter Galison’s incredible book, one of the best histories of science I’ve ever read: