Tuesday, February 17, 2009

You Don't Know What You Don't Know


You don’t know what you don’t know. This seemingly Rumsfeldian observation I suspect applies to a wider scope of field than mere personal knowledge. Of course we don’t know what we don’t know; obvious, no? Well, actually, not really.

History is filled with examples where previously held popular assumptions were overthrown by entirely new discoveries of science, culture and history, new areas of knowledge that were entirely unexpected, deduced or predicted based on previously held information or assumption. Take for example the quantum nature of energy and matter at the subatomic level, the culmination of a series of unexplained anomalous observations made in the formative years of physics, and entirely unpredicted based on a knowledge of the classical laws of mechanics. Continued study in the field has given rise to entirely non-intuitive implications, such as the fall of non-simultaneity, questioning the very assumptions upon which our seemingly rational world is based.

It is an intriguing observation that history itself is based on the set of historic data, observation and assumption that we know that we know – or, at least, think that we know – and that the difference between what we think that we know and what we actually know is akin to the difference between deduction based on fact and presumption based on assumption.

Holding a layperson’s perspective from observation of contemporary culture, I find the troubles in contemporary media, especially news and information-based media, disturbing when one considers the manner in which history is interpreted. The fact is that no era in recorded history is more thoroughly documented, dissected and discussed than ours, yet simultaneously, disagreement and lack of consensus of the basic meaning behind the oceans of data that we swim within has never been higher. As a homogenous humanity we have never been more data rich and yet we remain in an unprecedented state of utter despair in deducing meaning and large-scale patterns of fact from the cacophony of noise that is culture. This utter veracic handicap – a form of truth impairment – is especially of concern when we attempt to apply contemporary methods of reasoning to the understanding of the past. Thus we are left to apply a contemporary perspective upon the problem of understanding past cultures entirely foreign to us. We don’t know what we don’t know.

It has been stated that a culture that fails to learn from the mistakes of the past is doomed to repeat them. I would argue that culture is intrinsically ill suited to the understanding of the past, and therefore attempting any such analysis of the past from the nexus of contemporary culture is an utterly doomed effort. Any such objective analysis has to take place outside of the mainstream of culture. We need a renaissance of intellectual monasticism, scholars who are able to stay relatively untainted by the present so as to be able to gain a tighter foothold on veracity. We need truth-seekers.


One perspective on historical interpretation is that the history of a people and culture is the history of their technology. I have commented frequently that man is a toolmaker, and therefore within the artifacts of man’s culture we would expect to find evidence of his tool making and using activities. It would seem that any history of a people would therefore be incomplete without including the central role played by technology within that culture’s evolution.

What I find especially troublesome is the state of historical understanding within the near field of technological development. As the rate of change increases and older technologies are displaced with ever newer, we observe a technological myopia that collapses the historic field of vision, such that floppy computer discs, for instance, are relegated to roughly the same level of understanding as steam-propelled farm tractors. Everything becomes “so yesterday,” as if the only relevant field of understanding becomes the ever-changing, eternal, momentary present. We find popular conventions of understanding binned into the Boolean finiteness of “now” and “then,” two states of historic logic that determine ultimate value to the present culture.

I am also amused by the continual train of “retro” fashion that attempts to appropriate stylistic and design conventions of the past, in order to satisfy an ever-longing cultural lust for The New and The Different, but absent genuine understanding of how such technologies developed within the context of their contemporary milieu. So, while intriguing fashion magazine images may display a model sporting a retro-style overcoat and holding a Speed Graphic camera, for instance, nowhere in popular culture do we see interest in how the press camera evolved from the glass plate view camera, with the possible exception of specialist Internet discussion forums such as APUG and Rangefinder Forum. We want the sleek lines of the PT Cruiser, harkening back to an earlier automotive era, but absent the inconvenience of fouled plugs, fiddly condenser points and flimsy balloon tires. We want archaic and eat it, too.

Thus we find our view of the history of technology tainted and skewed be the limitations of our contemporary viewpoint. Some budding photographer, for instance, rediscovers the joy of pinhole photography, and begins to espouse its “19th century” style, only to be chastised later for an error in historical understanding: photographic emulsions of the 19th century were too slow to permit practical use of the micro-aperture, so that many images from the period were misidentified as “pinhole”, when in fact they employed glass camera lenses stopped down severely. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the pinhole’s principle of optical projection was applied to modern photographic emulsions in a new renaissance in art photography. Yet these commonly held misconceptions on the origins of technology continue to proliferate, as the near past is ill considered of sufficient value to warrant scholarly interest, being telescoped into the distantly arcane.


I have found myself over time having engaged in the exploration of archaic, obsolete or arcane corners of the technology spectrum, from the mathematics of the maze, to the history and development of the rigid airship, and a variety of alternative photographic processes now deemed mere historic curiosities. Specific to alternative photography, it has come to my attention that there are still practitioners of the calotype process, employed in public street portraiture within various countries such as Brazil, India and Bangladesh. These photographers create small, black and white portraits using paper negatives – a modern update to the calotype process – and process and print on location using a portable darkroom processing box. What grabs my immediate attention is that there remains very little public knowledge available on the history and working methods of these still functioning street photographers Their materials used – silver gelatin printing paper and simple processing chemicals – are themselves edging closer to obsolescence; witness Kodak’s demise from the manufacture of silver gelatin paper in 2005, and a consolidation of silver gelatin paper manufacture to just a handful of small firms in Great Britain and Europe.

Another aspect of the story of these third-world street photographers that interests me is their use of the silver gelatin print paper as an in-camera negative, since I have been preoccupied in my photography for the last decade in using these very same materials in pinhole and adapted optics cameras. In fact, the only part of the story that I was unfamiliar with was the portable darkroom processing box.

Based on various internet photos of these photographers at work on the streets, I have begun to construct a portable processing box, and am learning to create outdoor portraits involving processing the negative and print on location.

My exploration of the portable calotype process has permitted me understanding that there are entire bodies of knowledge foreign to us, which are on the verge of disappearing entirely, and which are deemed important enough to pursue preservation, like some lost species just now discovered prior to extinction.