I'm not really playing the Grinch here, but conversations about New Years usually deal with "more or less." We want to weigh less, we want to earn more. We want to spend more quality time with those we love, we want to be less driven by the demands of work. We wish Congress would do more, and spend less time explaining why it is always the other guy's fault that nothing gets done — stuff like that. So I thought it would be fun to take this first essay of 2012 to look back at 2011 to see — from a digital technology perspective — when "more" was a good thing, and when, instead, "more" was really less.
When More Really is More: The Lytro Camera
The Lytro camera (http://www.lytro.com/) claims my top spot by virtue of the fact that it is "more" in a sense far beyond "more of the same." Lytro is more in the sense that it increases the total of what we had before — it is "more" in that we never had this before.
Never had what before? Excellent question. Everyone who has ever taken a picture, from the gods of Ansel Adams and Margaret Bourke-White to the worst Facebook projectile photo poster, has had the experience of wanting a "do over." "If I could only go back and focus more on their faces!" "I wish I could see both the foreground flower and the background mountain better." But the shutter had snapped and marched on and no amount of fretting could undo the compositional decision made at that moment — until now.
Lytro is a light field camera for the masses, and you can Google "light field camera" if you want to read the long explanation. In a nutshell, it means that a light field camera like Lytro gathers all the light waves bouncing off the scene in front of the camera's lens and stores them as a data set that can be manipulated after you trip the shutter. Focus points, depth of field, light dark, framing — you can mess with everything. Just thinking about the creative possibilities that arise when you add Lytro to our already existing bag of Photoshop goodies is enough to make a photo geek — dare I say it? Swoon?
One can preorder the Lytro for $499.00 for a 16 MG version, $399.00 for 8MG, so it still isn't an impulse buy item, but compared with the far more expensive, far less portable previous generations of light field cameras, that is an exceptional price for some really sweet technology.
And the downside is? Well, just as a word processor can turn you into a sloppy writer, I can see the Lytro making one a sloppier photographer. Back in a previous life when I taught photography, I would ramble on at length over the arcane aspects of f/stops, shutter speed, depth of field and the aesthetics of composition. Now, I must admit to more than one instance when I came across some natural or urban vista and realized that there was a good photograph "in there somewhere." However, rather than seek it out, compose and shoot the desired image, I would simply loosen the frame and shoot the wider image, capturing mega-megapixels, and trusting Photoshop to allow me to do the compositional work necessary to find the good photograph in post-production. Sloppy, sloppy! A "where's Waldo" approach to photography. The Lytro gathers far more information in each exposure than the most muscular digital cameras — and thereby possibly increases our inclination to "shoot now, compose later." That, I must admit, concerns me.
When More is Less: Social Networks
Facebook is the worst, simply because it is the biggest and can bring us even more of the "more that is less." I could wax tiresomely on and on about my concerns regarding the trivializing of social ties that spin out from the "culture by the herd" churned by social networks, but I will limit myself to just a couple motes of "more is less."
The first I dubbed "Marley's Digital Chains," in a previous essay (http://awholenewbucket.blogspot.com/2011/08/marleys-digital-chains.html). The core of the problem is this: when you "friend" or "connect" or "co-join" or whatever with someone via a social network, you also invite his or her other friends/contacts/accomplices onto your screen as well. The result, without hiring a professional programmer to prevent it, is that entering the realm of "your" social network, is akin to walking into what you thought was going to be your class reunion or your family Thanksgiving dinner only to discover that most of the people there are utter strangers — strangers seeking to engage you in embarrassingly personal conversations regarding individuals you neither know nor about whom you care. Yeech.
The other problem stemming from social networks and the general increasing transparency of the Internet is a loss of intentional private communication, whether with another individual or a group of close friends. Google+ seemed to be addressing this issue with its notion of circles, but it was in the context of what I thought was a close and closed Google+ circle, that the notion of Marley's Chains first became apparent. One invited circle member signed in, and trailing behind him was a digital chain ponderous beyond all imagining. Friends and friends of friends clung to his coattails, and posts upon re-posts from utter strangers stretched off to the far horizons. Another time, I posted an anonymous comment on the website of a TV show, only to have it show up — with full attribution — during one of my infrequent visits to my Facebook page. I have no idea how it got there. It was more than slightly creepy. I worry that perhaps privacy really is a fading relic of the previous century.
And the upside is? The rebirth of snail mail? Of personal correspondence? I have a friend who still mails cards of his own photographs with brief, but tangible, messages of commemoration or remembrance. The experience is unusual enough as to be slightly disorienting. But the notes affirm that if I really want to send a private message to just one person perhaps I need to take up a writing implement of some form or another, mark meaningful symbols upon a page, download postage from the USPS website and mail the letter. Does that guarantee privacy? Of course not — but it greatly reduces the number of possible peekers.
When I'm Not Really Sure Whether More is More or Less: Free Books in the Kindle Store
Hello, my name is Robert and I am a mysteryoholic. I read them the way I used to smoke cigarettes — back before cigarettes were a health hazard and cost less than a steak dinner or a small car. You weren't really aware that you were smoking, but then at the end of the day there was this empty pack in your shirt pocket. Huh? Weird, wonder who smoked all my cigarettes. Now it's "Damn, finished another mystery. When did I start that one, and where is the next one coming from?"
Obviously then, when I mosey on over to the Kindle store and search the top hundred free offerings, I am immediately drawn to the mysteries and thrillers. Actually, I don't even have to do that anymore. Given the transparency of the Internet, my Amazon history, and the increasing sophistication of "personalized search," Amazon now emails me the top free and 99 cent mysteries each week in a personal email.
I download a few. I start them all. Some die, along with the vic, in the first few pages. Some last only a couple of chapters, and a surprising number I read completely. But remember, I do have an addiction in this area. The issue you see, is that we are fast moving into an era when a self-published book, the product of what we used to call a vanity press, is — in a digital format — indistinguishable from a publication by an established publishing house. That is until you begin to read it. The self-published book often makes it into the hands of a reader without benefit of a second opinion, let alone an editor.
The results are as varied as stars in the sky. A few are delightful, even shimmering. More, like dark matter, are best appreciated unseen. I don't know where this glut of electronic novels will lead. I think we are going to have to wait out 2012 and the evolution of e-readers and the digital publishing industry before hanging the "more is more" or "more is less" label on these Saturday Night Special Digital Mysteries. Maybe the good ones will find their way to established houses or digital cooperatives and return a living to their authors. The bad will, no doubt, remain with us due to imperturbable self-confidence of their creators. But with any luck at all, the ugly will end up swimming with the fishes in that dirty, dark river, Denial.
So then, forward into the New Year with eyes wide open — more or less.