Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Democracy of Choice

I continue to be amazed at the level of interest shown in film cameras, and photography using film cameras, especially black and white film, given that electronic image making is now the de facto standard. This is not mere mawkish sentimentalism; a harking back to a bygone day when we were young and strong and the best of life was yet before us. The popularity of B & W film photography would suggest a stronger, more vibrant base of adherents than would the few aficionados of vacuum-tube television technology, for instance.

Man, the toolmaker, has always been in love with his handiwork, even the outmoded constructs of yesterday. There are entire organizations dedicated to preserving the memory of bygone technology: British steam-propelled farm machinery; antique radios; mechanical computational devices; the manual typewriter; the abacus; the fountain pen; Fisher-Price Pixelvision video cameras; the Sinclair ZX-81; spring and gravity powered clockworks; the Spirit Duplicator. As specific products of our technological society transition from ‘The Latest Fad’, to ‘The Common Implement’, to ‘The Recently Obsolescent Artifact’, each will begin to attract newfound interest, no doubt spurred on by the recent cultural history attached to the object.

There may also be some specific product features that came to be secretly appreciated by the product’s fan base – the core group of devotees – which, being unrecognized by the manufacturer, were eliminated or irreparably altered on the product’s next refresh cycle. We have seen this especially in the world of camera technology, where the convergence of automated photographic process with the large scale integration and miniaturization of consumer electronics has resulted in products that conform to the economies of automated assembly, rather than conforming to the ergonomics of the human hand. What used to be simple mechanical controls that interfaced well with the structure of the human body has given way to a bewildering complexity of user choices, promising to eliminate all possibility of error by removing the option of manual control, or at least embedding those controls within the structure of a software menu, thus rendering their real utility moot.

It is this element of total control that we find of interest. The products we acquire seem to come to us preprogrammed for specific usage modes, with the possibility for any ad hoc use purposefully minimized. This process is so endemic that we only recognize the significance of a product’s ad hoc usage when it becomes a popularized fad. Like when MP-3 players began to be used as a file-sharing protocol. Or when instant messaging became a de facto replacement for email.

Observers of culture have also noted how the very process of democracy itself seems to have become a manufactured product, with predetermined usage modes. Candidates will arrive prepackaged in one of several popularly available issues, through the aegis of one of two available political parties. Said candidates will stick to one of several predetermined themes, and must raise funds from a predetermined list of corporate donors, to be channeled into a predetermined selection of media filters, who in turn will provide a service to the electorate by the recommendations provided through statistically manipulated pollings. The end result seems to be uncannily like what one would find available at any large retail establishment: a manufactured product ill-suited to fit the real needs of real humans.

When an appreciation for obsoleted technology achieves a specific critical mass then will the corporate sector pay notice by manufacturing new products designed to map specific attributes of the genuine artifact. In the automotive world we have seen this process play itself out in the product life cycles of the PT Cruiser and the Mini Cooper, while in the photography world we have seen the introduction of the Leica M8 digital rangefinder. In the realm of the political the analogy seems to be a plethora of preprogrammed political discussion that masquerades as real democracy, but is absent the key ingredient of actual choice.

Manufactured Democracy, like all other products of a corporate-controlled world, are designed to possess an intrinsic superficial resemblance to the genuine artifact in certain specific areas – like substituting prefabricated argument for actual public discourse, for instance – but when placed in hand next to the genuine item the superficial resemblance fades in comparison.

The ad hoc tool user purposefully short-circuits the element of control implied by the product’s large-scale industrial manufacture. New usage modes are found which are entirely original and outside the experience of using previous versions of the same product. For example, instant playback, via LCD screen, has offered an entirely original purpose for the digital camera: visual data recorder. People are now photographing their parking spot at the Mall, as an aid in finding their way back after the shopping spree has been exhausted. And they are recording images of consumer products at the store prior to purchase, then playing them back in their home setting as a way of judging product compatibility.

These unexpected uses for new technology belie the element of choice intrinsic to a democracy. In the corporate paradigm choice must be planned, programmed, scheduled. The unexpected is anathema. Meanwhile in the real world of subjective human experience choice represents the opportunity for both mistaken error and an entirely original level of success. The two are inseparable. The risk of democracy is failure and success intertwined.

Those who would manufacture consent (as Noam Chomsky reminds us) are unwilling to accept the risk of the unexpected that real democracy implies. Instead, we are offered a safer, manicured, instantly microwaveable version, simultaneously greater tasting and less filling.

Ultimately what satisfies me most about being technologically multiliterate is the opportunity of choice that it offers me. Specific to photography, I can both process an image digitally and dodge and burn in the darkroom. I can mix channels and mix developer concoctions from instant coffee crystals and swimming pool powder. I refuse the propaganda that would obsolete some tools and processes over others because of the strategies of mass marketing and planned obsolescence. I remain ready and willing to use all, to be open to all, to ignore none. That is the democracy of choice.


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