Phone Cameras + Social Are Expanding the Historical Record

"There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy."

In a critique of the rise of Instagram (current photo sharing app du jour), Laurie Voss argues that the rise of cheap, low fidelity cameras on phones is undermining the data contained in them. And it’s not just that these pictures are lower quality now, it’s affecting their value for future generations:

With these rubbish phone cameras we take terrible photos of some of our most important moments and cherished memories. I am not complaining about composition and lighting here; I’m not a photographer. I am talking about the quantity of meaningful visual data contained in these files. Future historians will decry forever the appalling lack of visual fidelity in the historical record of the last decade.

I read that, and at first though, “Yeah, that could be an issue.” But then I realized that, well no, it’s actually the opposite. The rise of cheap phone cameras is actually increasing the historical record. This even has disruptive innovation undertones to it.


Picture = Moment + Equipment

[tweetmeme source=”bhc3″]

When thinking about recording data for history pictorially, I consider two elements:

  • Moment
  • Equipment

"The line at 9 am at the Pleasanton @sfbart stretches for blocks. Huge crowd downtown today for #sfgiants parade."

Now moments are always going to arise. They may be significant moments, such as Janis Krums’ iconic picture above after a US Airways plan crash landed on the Hudson. Recently, the San Francisco Giants were celebrated for their 2010 World Series title with a ticker tape parade in downtown San Francisco. When I arrived at the Dublin/Pleasanton BART the morning of the victory parade, I was shocked by the number of people waiting in line for get to SF.

Just as important as the moment is the equipment. I’m not talking about the quality of the photographic equipment. I’m saying, “do you have something to take the picture?”

Before I got a phone with a camera on it, I had no way of photographing any moments. I could tweet about them, email a description of them and tell people about them. But there was no visual record at all.

I wasn’t carrying a camera around with me. Just not something I wanted to deal with as I also carried my ‘dumb’ phone.  And wallet. And keys. Just too much to deal with.

But a camera included with my mobile phone? Oh yeah, that works. I’ll have that with me at all times.

Which is a much better fit with the notion of capturing moments. They are unpredictable, and do not schedule themselves to when you’re carrying a separate camera.

As for the “quantity of meaningful visual data” being reduced, I think of it mathematically:

The X/Y variable represents the decrease in data per picture. If Y is the “full” data from a high resolution photo, then X is the reduced data set. The loss of scene details, the inability to discern people’s expressions, etc. Yeah, that is a loss due to low quality cameras.

The B/A variable represents the increased number of pictures enabled by the proliferation of convenient low quality cameras. If A is the quantity of photos with high resolution cameras, B is the overall number of photos inclusive of the low quality cameras.

Multiply the ratios, and I believe the overall historical record has been improved by the advent of phone cameras. In other words, “> 1”.

Sharing Is Caring

Something the higher quality, standalone cameras have lacked is connectivity. They miss that aspect we have to share something in the moment. The fact that I can share a picture just as soon as a I take it is extra incentive to take the picture in the first place.

I share my kids’ pics with family via email, and other pics end up in my Twitter and Facebook streams. You know how painful it is to upload photos from the camera and share them? Very.

Standalone cameras are like computer hard drives, locking data off in some siloed storage device somewhere. Good luck to historians in extracting that photographic data.

Convenience Wins Out

This is the disruptive innovation of convenience. People are swapping the separate cameras for the all-in-one mobile devices. And like any good low-end innovation, the quality will increase. Meaning more pictures with better detail and fidelity.

I mean, imagine if there were a bunch of phone cameras at Gettysburg?

Only known photo of Abraham Lincoln (center, without hat) at Gettysburg

We’d have thousands of pics, and it’d be a Twitter Trending Topic. As for the lower data per picture, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. Phone cameras will enrich the historical record for future generations.

[tweetmeme source =”bhc3″]


About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

12 Responses to Phone Cameras + Social Are Expanding the Historical Record

  1. Pingback: DomipixA » Phone Cameras + Social Are Expanding the Historical Record « I'm …

  2. Rick Ladd says:

    Bingo, Hutch! There can be no doubt the overall historical record is being constantly increased and enriched, as you show. Your points about convenience and connectivity are spot on as well. My wife carries her Canon 50D everywhere she goes . . . and she takes lots of pictures. However, she has to get home, upload them to her computer, then (and here’s the part where the silo beckons) share them somewhere. Me, I have my smart phone and I take pictures when the mood strikes or an interesting situation arises. They then get uploaded immediately (as an integral part of the process essentially) to Twitpic or Facebook so they get shared with my friends. Presumably, were I at some newsworthy event I would do the same and my photo would become part of the historical record – probably along with dozens, if not hundreds, of others.

    I wonder if Mr. Voss would have complained about the proliferation of lower quality copies of books when the Gutenberg press began replacing hand-crafted, illuminated texts. We all know how poorly that worked out.

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  5. Michalis says:

    Although I agree with the overall picture you are presenting, there are a few more problems you did not address, one being that there is no way to be sure the quality of any digital storage facility is anywhere as good as analogue negatives proved to be over long periods of time. Are all those DVDs and hard drives and stuff going to hold up (or being backed up) to live to see the moment of their historical usefulness? Talking of which: Another problem that comes up is that a lot of pictures might simply be erased before their historical usefulness might show through, something that did not happen so easily with the physical strips of negatives. A picture might look useless today and be deleted with a click, although it might have been that this exact situation has some kind of relevance that could not be seen at the time it was taken. Had you taken a picture of a president hugging an unknown intern at some party rally, you might have just deleted it due to it’s lack of photographic quality – whilst it might have been the only picture illustrating a turn of history that almost brought the world’s most powerful man close to impeachment. So the number of pictures taken alone is not going to make it any easier for future historians – it’s the number of pictures we manage to keep.

  6. Squids Cell says:

    what a good point of view….love your writing… 🙂

  7. photo would become part of the historical record.

  8. reisakti says:

    I think the photos also give visual data in history. People will be more convinced if there is not an original photograph in the edit. Good writing, I’ll be back to read your article the other.

  9. AJ says:

    I have to somewhat disagree with you here. Who is going to print that stuff out and archive it within its proper context? How many civilizations have come and gone whereby all visual records perished? So much of the current visual record is now on fallible servers and who’s to say the internet will always be around? Good luck with your phone camera visual record. And don’t get me started on what digital photo manipulation has done for the authenticity of the visual record. To this day, I can still look back at all the notes and correspondence I had from high school. Will kids archive their billions of text messages for future rumination? I highly doubt it. My grandmother’s house burned down and her visual record survived since it was packed tightly in a shoebox. Just try and recover a melted hard drive some day. If anything, we’re setting ourselves up to LOSE a massive swath of history unless transferred to a more permanent record. I know people whose whole family photo album was on a hard drive which crashed and wasn’t recoverable. Good luck explaining to your kid as to why you don’t have any pictures of them when they were a child, LOL!

    • Thanks AJ for stopping by. A couple counterpoints. First, your comment shows the value of the cloud. Rather than depend on a faulty hard drive, leverage the security and back-ups typically built into the cloud. Second, nothing stops people from making physical pics from their digital pics. If that physical picture is worth it, by all means, print it out!

      Meantime, I’ve got a pretty good security strategy for my kids pics. I tend to email them out my family. Which means a distributed set of each pic. In the worst case, I’ve got a family back-up plan for those pics.

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