THE SHOE-SHINE MAN AND DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY

ImageHe stands with one leg raised, a single figure in a seemingly vacant street. The figure was captured on Boulevard du Temple in Paris in 1838 by Louis Daguerre, the man whose name graced a world-changing technology. The daguerreotype required a ten-minute exposure, so anything in motion – carriages, pedestrians, animals – were invisible within the frame. A lone stranger is visible only because he stood still to get his shoes shined, long enough to burn his fuzzy outline into history.

The scene in a Paris street marked the first rendering of a human being by light quanta on silver iodide. By the end of the 19th century, the mass reproduction of images in newspapers and magazines turbocharged the consumer economy while midwiving celebrity culture. By the early part of the 20th century, most middle class consumers could afford small portable cameras. Every other working stiff now had a shot at immortality in black and white or colour.

Digital tech has moved so fast and furiously over the past 10 years that Vancouver hockey rioters were surprised when they were identified and tried by their own social media. The recent popularity of the Instagram iPhone and Android app – which gives digital shots a retro look of cheap handheld film cameras – signals the nostalgia for a time when technological advance was encouraging rather than disorienting. (By now, media guru Marshall McLuhan is spinning so rapidly in his grave he could be used as an alternative energy source.)

The blessings and curses of digital photography are one and the same: astounding quality and instant dissemination. Freed from the limitations of film cost and frame count, we can all can point and click like Margaret Bourke-White on Benzedrine.

In a variation of Gresham’s Law, bad pics crowd out good pics. Many of us have hard drives swollen with hundreds or thousands of photos we have yet to go through and cull. With smartphones and tablets doubling as cameras, and shots shuffled onto laptops and desktops, many of us aren’t even sure which devices hold what pictures.

We can also now lose photos in entirely novel ways. I once backed up a failing hard drive before replacing it. Only later did I realize I hadn’t copied over my iPhoto library, which included shots of my parents before they passed away. So I hung on to the drive with the intent to reinstall it one day and grab the shots. Stuck behind some books on a shelf, it remains a hidden memorial to my parents, their images interred as ones and zeroes on a magnetic disk.

Yet photos that end up on social networking sites can suffer the opposite fate, as social-scarring scarlet letters. “The Cloud” never forgets, as demonstrated by the tragic tale of Amanda Todd.

There is another down side to image-based overkill. Many of us with Blackberries, Android phones and iPhones have the tourist’s habit of compulsively snapping pictures without much reflective thought. The camera lens inserts itself between the viewer and the world, putting him or her at a further remove from lived experience. We’re increasingly tourists of our own lives, with Facebook the new form of the once-dreaded home projector.

In comparison to digital slide shows, old-school photo albums with their cellophane inserts and binder rings are bulky, space-consuming burdens. Yet they still have a peculiar, retro charm – hence the online services for turning digital photos into real-world books. One of the few photo albums I ever made followed a six-week trip in Europe in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. (I wince when I see the fashion crimes I committed back in the waning days of the Cold War. A handlebar mustache and muscle pants?)

My photo album included scenes from the Parisian neighbourhood where Louis Daguerre took the world’s first photograph of a human being. The mystery man on Boulevard du Temple never knew he was the target of this remarkable distinction, and we’ll never know the particulars of his life. The shoe-shine flaneur is frozen in time in a ghostly urban landscape, a cipher in silver emulsion from an era before CCTV cameras and geotagged pictures. He is a fragment from a slower-moving world that still had the capacity to forget.

The Vancouver Courier, Dec 21

IN PRAISE OF UNCERTAINTY

One day back in the far-off ’80s, a TV news crew approached me in the street. They had a question about some political dust-up in Ottawa, of which I knew nothing until a microphone was planted in my face. I was just another random young dude to them, but I took the question as a challenge. Although completely uninformed, I cooked up an opinion on the spot and spoke confidently without the usual verbal Pollyfilla (“um,” “you know,” and so on).

I caught myself on the news later. I was surprised how convincing I sounded, even though I was talking out of another part of my anatomy. My employer at the time happened to witness this questionable clip, and promoted me from the factory floor to the office.

Cut to the recent past. My partner and I were sitting in a café at Shawnigan Lake, when a TV news crew stumbled through the door and buttonholed patrons about a local act of eco-vandalism at a nearby development project. We calmly explained that we weren’t from the area, and that we didn’t have enough background to offer an informed opinion. Even after we politely refused, the news crew assured us — in so many words — that any response was fine by them.

The inference seemed to be that plenty of people appear on TV without a clue what they’re talking about (as in CBC’s “Talking To Americans” special, in which comic Rick Mercer received eager, affirmative responses from selected pedestrians to questions like, “should President Bush bomb the West Edmonton Mall?”).

We live in a time of instant opinions and ready-made talking points. Rarely do you see a politician, pundit, policy wonk or academic qualify their position or concede a point if it means a loss of mindshare. From the sky box to the bar stool, from the executive suite to the streets, we’re expected to come down on this or that side.

The opinion pages and hotline radio shows are full of bloviating blowhards with definitive answers on everything from global warming to the true meaning of Christmas. Public relation firms counsel big-name clients how to speak with conviction without saying anything of substance. Religious figures have their walled enclaves of belief, and it’s career suicide for them to express any personal doubts about their SkyGod or prophet of choice.

Carefully worded conviction often wins brownie points, as it did with my employer at the time of my TV interview. So there is little space in our culture for people who know what they don’t know and are willing to confess it. You don’t see agnostics going from door to door, asking to share their personal uncertainty about a supreme being

The Romantic era poet John Keats defined “negative capability” as the skill “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” That’s not just some obscure piece of lit-crit wankery. It’s timeless advice for anyone who slags doubt as certitude’s slacker kid brother. Let’s not forget that the three greatest ideas of the twentieth century  – Relativity, The Uncertainty Principle and Godel’s Theorem – all rested on demonstrating the limits of our perspectives.

As anyone knows who watches television talent shows, absolute conviction has been spot-welded to the pop psychology blandishments of the self-esteem industry. Too much doubt can be crippling, of course. No one wants to suffer from self-defeating bouts of Hamlet-like dithering. That’s why I think of certainty as being like arsenic: in small amounts it’s a stimulant, but in large amounts it’s a deadly poison.

This isn’t just about self-doubt, but doubt in general. In a recent talk at SFU Harbour Centre, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk expressed his irritation that he had been uncritically quoting experts all his working life — until his discovery of a spate of meta-analysis suggesting a wide range of professional expertise over the years, from medicine to energy policy, has rested on flawed and fudged studies.

Aristotelian logic is built on the binary option of “A” or “Not A”, with nothing in between. In contrast, the American author and philosopher Robert Anton Wilson insisted the most important word in the English language hails from Aristotle’s excluded middle: “maybe.” At the very least, our cultural gatekeepers should take a cue from fuzzy logic and learn to occasionally say those three little words that men in particular find so hard to say: I don’t know.

The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 12

THE MUSEUM OF THINGS EXPERIENCED WITH INCREASING RARITY

ImageWelcome to the Museum of Things Experienced With Increasing Rarity. Please leave your bags at the coat check.

Thank you. Come this way.

MOTEWIR It is an institution dedicated to the products, inventions and objects and entertainments that were once part of peoples’ lives, but are slipping – or have slipped – away. Some visitors consider these items halfway between historical and hysterical. Younger visitors may find some of this of curatorial interest only.

Over here in the Hall of Obsolescence, we have a beige Macintosh Powermac 9500 desktop computer. In the mid-nineties it was a cutting edge device for gearheads and graphic designers; with 32 megabytes of RAM and a $4900 price tag. The “Flying Toasters” screensaver may look a bit pixilated to today’s jaded eyes, but it was considered high-end video graphics in its time, at least at the consumer level.

The Mac is connected to a “dial-up” modem. Incredibly, there was a time when people weren’t constantly online, in-touch and on-call. If you wanted to connect to the Internet, you had to do it manually. Hear this? Every time a modem connected to distant servers, people heard this pterodactyl-like screech. Crazy, I know.

Next to the computer is a telephone hard-wired into a wall. Fun fact for you teens: telephone landlines predate voicemail and texting. If you weren’t home to get a call, it was like it never happened. Callers would have to try again later.

Watch your step folks, there were a lot of cables back then. Come this way. This primitive object is called an “ashtray.” It’s from a time when many people inhaled from tobacco-containing tubes called “cigarettes.” Next to the ashtray is its cousin from an earlier era, a “spittoon.” You can guess its purpose from the name.

This strange metallic thing in my hand, can anyone guess what it is? It’s a “Brannock Device,” once used by salespeople for measuring feet in shoe stores. This thing is analogue all the way, not a wire or cable on it. A real collector’s item.

Any questions? No? Right this way…this is our “Eighties to Noughties Entertainment Room.” In the display case is a Michael Jackson action figure in its original packaging. You can tell it’s from the eighties by the skin colour. Also, by the fact it’s not encased in an impervious plastic clamshell. Excuse me, ma’am, please don’t touch the vacuum tube receiver/amplifier, it’s an antique from Radio Shack. You are free to browse the encyclopedia on the bookshelf if you like, along with the Xeroxed “zines”.

Just past this excellently preserved Betamax recorder we have a stack of HD-DVDs. Remember them? I don’t either.  Apparently HD-DVD lost the digital battle to Blu-ray back in 2008, even though it was the less expensive format.

And can anyone tell me what this is? Good guess son, but no, it’s not a “white brick.” It’s an original, scroll-wheel iPod from 2001.  It holds 5 gigabytes of sound files. That’s the equivalent of one cheap memory stick from Staples today – or 3 Powermac 9500s from the past. 

This is my favourite room: The Gallery of Forgotten Sounds. Here you can listen to the symphony of amphibians, crickets, and grasshoppers that once serenaded people on summer nights, along with the occasional train whistle. For balance we have a backfiring Ford Pinto and a Michael Bolton Christmas medley.

If you would like to enjoy a movie, today our Cinemascope theatre is showing a Ken Burns-like compilation of vanished or vanishing sights and scenes. Milkmen. Visible orthodonture. Body hair. Cursive writing. Migrating birds in V-formations. Woolly caterpillars. Nuns in habits. Hitchhikers. People putzing about, unrushed and unscheduled, conversing in public. Heartfelt goodbyes at airports. Kids playing unsupervised outdoors. And wrinkles! Remember when people with money aged gracefully?

Thanks for coming. Donations will allow us to expand the MOTEWIR collection; in the coming months we hope to add a waterbed, sprocketed film projection equipment, mail order uranium, lawn darts, and a Christmas tree made of actual cedar. 

Any last questions? What’s that…public washrooms? I’m sorry, that’s one thing from the past we don’t have here at The Museum of Things Experienced With Increasing Rarity. Just kidding! Down the hall to the left, next to the poster of Simon Le Bon. 

The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 7