First, a confession. I am a collector. Whilst most of my life has been gladly given up to digitisation, there are parts of it that have held out; little islands of analogue amidst the bitstreams. Like photography, for example – all of the images on this site were taken with a Mamiya C330, a camera with no electronic, or even electric, parts whatsoever. And music – I do not own an MP3 player, or even a CD player, outside of the one in this computer. The shelves in our lounge are 4-inch think planks, built to withstand piles of books, LPs and untidy folders of medium-format negatives and contact sheets. This is the sheer weight of analogue, the polar opposite of the unbearable lightness of iPods.
I’ve always thought this was a deliberate affectation, the result – in the case of photography – of six years of art school spent learning about reciprocity failure, platinum printing and other arcane chemistries. Then there’s always the geekier arguments about the quality difference in analogue and digital, but I was never that good a photographer to use that as a convincing excuse.
I realise now it’s about something else. Three things have happened in the last week that have clarified why digital isn’t enough somehow, and why the weight of analogue media is more than just dead matter.
One was a photograph. Its a polaroid of me, aged ten, carrying the FA Cup at the Spurs training ground during an open day in 1982. My brother found his version, carrying the charity shield, a while ago, and I’ve been searching for mine ever since. It turned up when my parents moved home for the first time in 30 years, so this image has been lying in a plastic bag in a kitchen drawer for at least 20 years.
This material serendipity is more than just nostalgia – it’s an essential part of what photography has come to mean as a medium over the last 150 years. Vernacular photographs are our histories, and without the material half-life of chemistry and paper the 20th century would be a much darker place for future historians. Will our current decade – with the ubiquity of digital photography – be a confusing shadow, a blank space where the images were turned off, one by one, as servers and backups gradually failed?
The second thing was an essay in Saturday’s Guardian Review by Umberto Eco. He describes having to prepare a lecture for a conference about Edgar de Bruyne, a Belgian scholar of medieval aesthetics. Having studied de Bruyne in his 20’s, Eco could go back to his original file cards and notebooks, and reconstruct the arguments that have affected his work ever since. For Eco, this provides a moral about the value of study and knowledge; he says, “a good thesis is like a pig. You don’t throw anything away, and even after decades you can still re-use it”. As well as being a typically Italian gastronomic metaphor, it summed up how I felt about photography. Apparently, 1 in 5 digital photographs are never printed: they are erased or kept in a virtual, digital state on memory cards and servers. This feels wasteful, like taking the best cuts from the pig and then discarding the rest, instead of laying it down as preserves or stock. How do you know you’re never going to want that image? That there will not be some moment of hunger in 20 years time? Digital photography feels like bacon in the fridge; good for a couple of weeks, but then only fit for the bin. An analogue photograph is a well-cured ham – you can forget about it for years, but it will stay there, gathering dust in a cupboard, until you bring it out, brush it off, and enjoy it all over again.
The third thing was to do with Google, and its announcement that it was launching an email service. Google have raised the bar amongst their webmail competitors by offering 1000Mb of storage. This could just braggado – anything Microsoft can do, Google can do bigger. But Google have made their reputation on the web by making things better, not bigger. Their homepage has mostly resisted the gradual accumulation of popups and banner ads, and their image is one of a lean, efficient company providing lean, efficient services.
So why have they suddenly gone for quantity rather than quality? The clue is in the second bullet point describing the benefits of their webmail service: “Don’t throw anything away”. Google realise that, as the web is increasingly the carrier of our social, vernacular histories, storage will become the most important factor. And not just storage, but lots of storage, the digital equivalents of lofts and cupboards, cardboard boxes and kitchen drawers. We need to be able to forget where we put things, and then have search engines find things when we half-remember them 20 years later. Digital media is limited as a source of future histories because it relies on constant remembering; we have to repeatedly backup, migrate and upload our data, lest the fragile bits perish. I now realise that Google’s mission is to do something about this, to restore the serendipity that comes from being able to forget. Like their indexing of the usenet archives, Google are trying to graft material histories onto our virtual present.
Eco finishes his essay by reflecting on the how knowledge relies on these serendipitous relationships:
“…the exercise of knowledge creates relationships, continuity and emotional attachments. […] It allows us to live longer, because we don’t just remember our own life but also those of others. It creates an unbroken thread that runs from our adolescence (and sometimes from infancy) to the present day. And all this is very beautiful.”
Digital media has, so far, had a spectacular impact on how we create relationships. But it is only just begining to appreciate the value of continuity. Google’s email service is perhaps an evolutionary step from the instant relationship of the web to the continuity of the forgotten photograph. Maybe, over time, this will in turn lead to emotional attachment, and the digital bitstreams will finally wash over the last few remaining analogue islands.