How the Land Lies

April 16, 2007

by Bill Thompson, technology critic and blogger


The ability to record, manipulate and publish digital images has fallen into the hands of the masses in a revolution whose impact is far greater even than the introduction of the Kodak box Brownie in 1900.

The boundaries between professional photography, art and popular snapshots are blurring, just as the growth of blogging and citizen journalism makes it hard at times to distinguish between journalism, literature and a diary entry.

On one side those who make their money or reputation from photography are challenged to justify their continued importance or even survival. On the other the billions with digital cameras find a new way of expressing themselves via Flickr and Photobucket.

But we should not confuse access with accountability, and we should not automatically claim that digital leads to democratisation. Despite Pedro Meyers’s powerful description of the impact the network has had on the dissemination of his work, and the improved access that we now have, this is about openness not democracy and we should not elide the terms. In the media world there is much talk of ‘citizen journalism’, ‘participative media’, ‘the former audience’ and other terms seeking to describe the reshaping of the relationship between the creator and consumer of content at all levels.

It is sometimes called a process of ‘democratising media’ but this doesn’t seem the right way to think about it. Democracy is about power and representation, not merely about having a voice. It is also about the tyranny of the majority and the moral pressure on the winners in any vote or decision to take into account the needs and desires of the whole polis rather than just their side.

This is not, in itself, about democracy but about plurality. We are living through a Cambrian explosion in new media forms and voices, the online equivalent of that amazing period 540 million years ago when the fossil record shows the sudden – geologically speaking – appearance of many of the ancestors of modern species. Photography is part of that explosive growth.

We should remember that the Cambrian was a period of great experimentation in structure and function, but that there is good evidence that many promising models simply died out, leaving the world to our ancestors[1]. There is no good reason to suppose that these forms of life were, in themselves, unable to be sustained if conditions – chemical, physical – had been different or if they had simply been luckier.

So it is today. Experiments are being tried all over the net. Some will succeed and shape the future of media. Some will fail. Those that start to succeed may well shape the environment and make it more likely that others will fail, just as YouTube’s success has polluted the ecosystem and shrunk the niche for other video-sharing sites.

The power of production may have passed to the people but the power of selection online lies with an editorial process that is managed and controlled by those who build the sites, develop the algorithms and host the pictures. We may have taken power from news editors or the magazine publishers, but we have put it in the hands of the programmers at Google, Flickr and Photobucket.

Perhaps, however, we are not looking for democracy, not looking to give power to the people in a simple-minded way, but instead looking for equality of opportunity and digital mobility. The transformational power of digital production may lie solely in the way it allows everyone to create and share rather than in some poorly-considered claims that it can have a radical political impact.

[1] See Simon Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

Picture: via flickR

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One comment

  1. […] Democratic Image Just another WordPress.com weblog « How the Land Lies On the democratisation of images April 16th, 2007 by Pedro Meyer (Zonezero.com), in reply […]

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