Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Economics of Photography

Lewis and his boneheaded friend got me noodling, as these things often do, which is why I read things I think are stupid as well as things that are clever, and things that are simply informative. Dissent makes you smarter, it makes you question things, it makes you seek answers. Dissenting opinions and ideas are what make you think.

Consider the industrial revolution. We have machines and steam and crap, and everything changed. The details are not terribly important here. The important things we see in the 1800s are things like the standardization of screw threads and a bunch of other things that mean, effectively, that mechanical contrivances can be made and used that are beyond the ability of a blacksmith to hammer out on his anvil.

Then along comes Henry Ford and invents the assembly line, and now we can build not only build complex machines, we can do so fairly cheaply. The age of the automobile is upon us. The marginal cost of an automobile-complex machine becomes remarkably low, although not zero.

Fairly quickly the buggy whip makers all go out of business, and the very face of travel itself is altered. It is no longer a big deal to go visit grandma 40 miles away. Visiting friends halfway across the country is not an expedition involving steamer trunks of crap and trains, we simply toss a pair of clean underwear in the back seat and go.

This is awful for the blacksmiths and the buggy whip makers. The world ends, from their perspective.

The world changes in ways that we did not predict, which seem blindingly obvious in hindsight. Motels and hotels are big business. Roadside diners. Truck stops. Gas stations. None of these are particularly new things. We have had roads, we had services for travelers along the roads, for 1000s of years. Canterbury Tales tells us all about it, from what, 700 years in the past or so, but the economic balance of these things changed. We still have buggy whip makers, I can still buy a whip. For horses. There are just a whole lot fewer of them. We still have hotels, just a whole lot more of them. The world convulsed, changed, as we learned what to do with this new "car" thing, and evolved into what we see today. It has further adapted to include air travel. Trains, sadly, not so much.

It's stupid to even say it: the economic convulsions that evolved out of the automobile were vast. More importantly, at least here in the USA, our cultural relationship with travel, and with distance, changed profoundly.

Consider now the state of photography. It's not the same as the industrial revolution, or the assembly line, but some things are similar.

There are, perhaps, three specific points that are worth noting:
  • The marginal cost of making a photo is very close to zero.
  • Digital implies infinitely malleable, plastic.
  • Digital and online implies infinitely automate-able.

Next, consider some recent trends that anyone who keeps track up the industry (e.g. reads PetaPixel) knows about.
  • Infinitely many pictures exist, and more every second.
  • Selfies, selfies, selfies.
  • Photoshopped pictures power fake news.
  • Social media influencers "make money" but use robots to inflate their apparent influence.

These all pretty straightforward consequences of the first three points. The last is an interesting case, and we can generalize it.

As soon as third parties are willing to pay people for behaving online in accordance with some algorithm controlled by that third party, an ecosystem of robots to milk that algorithm will arise. If you can get paid for having followers on instagram, you will be able to buy followers for roughly the same amount of money. If you can get paid for frobulating the whatsists on, you'll be able to hire an army of frobulation robots for a few pennies less than the money they'll make for you. The reason so many web sites are incomprehensible messes of ads is because those are not even supposed to be human readable web sites. They're there to be "read" by robots operated by the web site's owner in order to drive advertising revenue. So-called "ad-tech" is a third-party algorithm that pays for clicks, and so of course robots have arisen to click. Ad pricing on the web is in free fall, and that's part of why.

Many industries seem to be trying to be that third party, using algorithms to broker payments to amateurs, and this is a non-sustainable model in a very general sense. The web is a fine place for many kinds of business, but not that kind of business. The buggy whip business is collapsing, has collapsed. Marketing trying to re-invent itself by using "social media influencers" instead of supermodels and fashion photographers isn't working out either, because of the inherent properties of the digital photography ecosystem, which is what made the trouble in the first place. Robots and photoshop will destroy any efforts to make this work.

News media trying to reinvent itself using "citizen photojournalists" instead of actual photojournalists isn't working out so great either, again because of the inherent properties of the digital ecosystem that caused their troubles in the first place. Robots and photoshop.

On the one hand, we have to consider the possibility that the photograph is going to go the way of the illuminated manuscript. The idea of there being money associated with these things may simply be silly, there may be no "ecosystem" that works, any more than there is an "ecosystem" that supports monetizing handwritten notes on postits.

On the other hand, if it is possible that photography might remain an economic force, it will be in some way that embraces the new digital model rather than struggles against it. Sell gas, meals, and hotel rooms to drivers rather than trying to figure out how to make a car-compatible buggy whip.

I have no idea what it looks like, and it is probably unknowable. We did not know, in 1908, in what ways we would even use the automobile. Without knowing that, there was no way to predict in what ways the automobile would alter the landscape. The most common guess would probably have been that we'd use cars a lot like we used horses in 1907, and that guess was completely wrong.

The idea that in the USA the automobile would become a tangible symbol of independence, of freedom, to the extent that it is common and normal for miserable sods to drive an hour each way to their job, in heavy traffic, 5 days a week would have seemed complete madness. Obviously everyone would continue to use the streetcars, or walk. The idea that people would routinely drive 1000 miles to visit friends would have seemed absurd, who even has friends 1000 miles away?

In the same way, we cannot know what sorts of economic models will spring up around photography, if any, until we know what photography will become to us as a culture.

At present, photography seems to largely be what it always was, only moreso. More pictures, more self-indulgence, more news photos, more fashion photos, more lifestyle photos, more portraits. There's a trend toward "amateurish" in all these things, naturally, as photography is truly accessible to billions. There's a trend toward "faked" as the plasticity of the digital photo becomes more and more forward in our thinking -- not just photoshop, but face-swapping apps on our phones and the like. I've proposed that computational photography might usher in a whole brave new era of "fake".

The things we can take away, I think, are that any economic power that photography has in the future will have to either avoid or embrace the problems of plasticity, of automation, and of ubiquity.

I cannot shake this fact from my mind: During gold rushes, the people who make money are rarely the gold miners. The real money is in selling eggs, shovels, and baths.

While it's possible that photography will remain roughly the way it exists today, with all economic power gradually squeezed out of it, it's also possible that an automobile-like transition might occur.

Two things are possible:
  • That photographs will retain indefinitely something of their cultural impact
  • That they will not

By this I mean that the photograph will (or will not) retain its power to interest us, to attract our attention. Consider the line drawing, the illustration. We are awash in these things. The drawings in the instruction booklet, the inset map that shows where the advertised store is located, the illustration of the ear showing how small the hearing aid is, and so on. We don't notice these things, they only intrude upon our consciousness when we're attracted by something else.

(take a moment, look around your home, look for illustrations. I dare say you will be amazed at how many there are, and how few you have noticed.)

A photograph, contrariwise, attracts us. We look at the photo to see what it is, and read the caption, and then perhaps the article. A photo is a point of entry, while an illustration is something we literally don't notice until we're well-engaged with whatever the container is.

This might change. With the vast stream of pictures and, more importantly, the growing untrustworthiness of the pictures on all levels, this might change. We cannot trust that the picture was not photoshopped. If not 'shopped, it's likely to be false in other ways. Perhaps it shows an instagram "influencer" with 150,000 followers (149,999 robots and her mom) enjoying herself at a fine hotel in Egypt when in fact she is miserable, terrified, because she doesn't even have plane fare home.

If photographs vanish into that same mental and cultural space now occupied by the illustration, if they fail to attract attention (and we're starting to see this, I think) then what? News and fashion and business are already transitioning more and more to video anyways. Whence the still photograph?

Perhaps it becomes intensely personal. Nobody really looks at anyone else's pictures even now. Ever seen someone "reading" instagram? 1 second per photo, tops. Flick, flick, thumb a like, flick, like, flick, like, flick, flick. One gets the sense that they are liking photographs based entirely on who took it. No, photography for most people is an output-only medium. Perhaps we eventually stop looking, really looking, at any photographs except our own.

Where do the economics land, then? Is it in selling costumes for selfies? Selling purely virtual costumes to edit on to your selfies? Or something else, something so obvious (like motels) that we'll never guess it until it's already taken over the world?

I don't know if there will be a massive, imperceptible, cultural shift in how we understand photographs. I don't know what shape it will take, if it occurs. I don't know what the consequences will be.

But I do think that the automobile suggests the scope that is possible.

1 comment:

  1. I think that the cultural shift in photography will happen "not with a bang, but with a sigh..." (if I recall correctly the phrase).