Before deepfakes and alternative facts, the online world was already telling us fibs. In our series Lies the Internet Told Me, we call ’em all out.
For our summer vacation, my wife drove us hell-for-leather between National Parks, driven by the urge to collect every stamp in her Parks Passport. We eagerly snapped up the new National Parks Geek merch. Our dog was sworn in as a #BarkRanger. And I was deputized photographer, urged to get shots of thousand-year-old petroglyphs and cave dwellings, not to mention the 200 million-year-old tree trunks.
We came home. My wife pored over her passport and stamps. The magnets and decals went on fridges and cars. The dog wore his Bark Ranger badge around the neighborhood with beaming pride. And my photos? We haven’t looked through them yet. I doubt we ever will. If we really need to see that petroglyph or that tree again, it would be faster to Google them — where we’d find a more pleasingly professional shot.
If you’re anything like me, here’s the exact number of times in any given year that you pore over your Apple Photos, Google Photos or similar library: approximately never. Who has the time? Despite the encouragement those companies give us to store all our images with them, it sits there as ones and zeros — billions of merely theoretical photos expending massive amounts of energy on cloud servers, costing each of us a few bucks every month.
Or worse, the photos are consigned to death row on a single vulnerable hard drive, awaiting its inevitable failure.
Sure, you might dip into the archive for a minute or two every now and then. Wearing your Instagram or Facebook hats, you pluck an image from obscurity, elevating them to the relative stardom of a few Likes. In the social archives, at least, you might look back at them more often. But you’re lucky if this elevation happens to more than one in a hundred snaps.
The average picture you take will fade into forever, and it’s high time we got real about this. We live in an age of digital abundance, one that has devalued photos more than anything. The Snapchat-and-Stories generation treats them as expendable and ephemeral, but Gen Xers are no better — we just fool ourselves into thinking we’re preserving history in these dusty, pricy digital archives. But what exactly are we preserving, and for whom?
Will our descendants, beset on all sides by ever more media, even bother to look? If we don’t, why would they?
The rise and fall of the photo
We’ve seen a half-century decline in the value of photographs. From the first ever taken in 1822 through the launch of the one-dollar Kodak Brownie in 1900, they were unique, one of a kind, priceless objects. The Brownie brought us the snapshot, but these were still pieces of treasure: expensive to develop, taken relatively rarely, mounted in carefully guarded albums that nevertheless shed like leaves over the decades. I have, for example, just two precious photographs each of my English and Italian grandfathers.
The abundant ephemerality of photos started to sneak up on us in 1963, with the first Polaroid camera you could load with a “packfilm,” 100 color exposures strong. You pointed, shot, and peeled each one apart to develop it. A decade later, you didn’t even need to peel. (You also never needed to shake a Polaroid picture; shaking could in fact damage the exposure. Thanks a lot, Outkast.)
The digital camera brought its own kind of limitations. To cover the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, I bought a bulky piece of plastic that looked like a pair of binoculars. It took about 10 blotchy shots before needing a recharge. Would this replace film? I was skeptical.
Five years later, I toted a palm-size digital camera to Japan, where a mobile media messaging company tried to convince me that sending small pixelated photos over your phone was the future. I was skeptical.
I had no idea of the size of the approaching deluge, no sense that the coming decades would make me so photographically rich — and so attention-poor.
Pics and it didn’t happen
Apple Photos, the heir to iPhoto, is organized chronologically; you zoom out and get a multicolored, pixelated view of how many snaps you took (or uploaded from) each year. When I look at my library, it’s easy to see that the vast majority of the 25,332 shots and 950 videos it stores, more than 100 GB of data, hail from the last decade.
A kind of Cambrian explosion of life took place in the late 2000s, after the launch of the iPhone. On top of that, you can see an increase in duplicates in the 2010s — a sure sign that I stopped pruning my photographic garden. It has gone to seed, a forgotten forest of clones. (iOS, at least, is soon to be smart enough to cull the clones.)
Every so often in this forest you see the bright flowering of a well-tended photo, saved to the roll from Instagram — the clones that saw the sunlight.
Even without duplicates, this explosion looks set to continue. Multiple estimates have placed the number of digital photos we take per year north of one trillion since 2015, triple the number in 2010. One estimate from Info Trends put the number in 2017 at 1.2 trillion — or 160 photos for everyone alive on the planet, year in, year out — and says it’s increasing by 100 billion a year.
It’s hard to imagine history will care about even 1 billion of them. What of the rest, then? I’m all for historical preservation, but are we doomed to keep piling up trillions of unseen photos every year, like so many boxes in an ever-expanding warehouse, on the off-chance that one of them contains the Ark of the Covenant?
There are plenty of clone photos on display outdoors at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. In front of the painted desert, black and white shots from the 1880s are shown side by side with color photos of the same site from the 1980s. The point is to show that the landscape hasn’t changed, because the park has prevented people from running off with the long-dead, mineral-rich trees.
There’s another, more subtle message at work: We’re all taking the same damn photo here, people, and we have done for nearly 140 years. What’s one more picture at this spot? Maybe we should give it a rest, and fully enjoy being here in this moment.
Did we listen, my fellow National Parks Geeks and I? We did not. We stood in awe of the painted desert for a moment, then automatically raised our phones. Taking care not to allow any strangers in the shot — nothing that might make it truly unique! — we snapped away. And on servers thousands of miles away, more data trees were added to a vast and petrified forest.