I’ve been on a speaking circuit this week, and so living a quasi-nomadic life. It’s a very strange experience to be shuttled between locations and across vast distances, all with only a modicum of awareness of all the places I’m scheduled to attend, persons I’ll be meeting, and expectations I will have to meet. I don’t mean to say that I don’t know why I’m travelling, or what I’ll be speaking about, but that the aspects of travel itself are often almost entire dealt with by other parties. There is no effort to determine where I need to go: someone will take me to the designated address. I don’t need to find a place to eat: I’ll be taken to where I need to eat. I don’t need to figure out where to sleep: someone else will determine that.
I contrast it with trips I take for personal relaxation and it’s a totally different experience. Tomorrow, as an example, I’ll be landing in a new place where I don’t speak the language and have no read guidance once I’m there. There are a few tent pole events — nature hikes! — but otherwise time will be entirely unoccupied with designated tasks or todos other than exploring. I actually find this kind of travel deeply uncomfortable because it feels so uncontrolled, but every time I learn a great deal more about the world, and how I should readjust my perceptions of that world.
While shuttling between places for conferences and events is intellectually stimulating it doesn’t tend to push me into uncomfortable spaces that facilitate growth. The exact opposite is true of personal travel. I half wonder, though: if I didn’t travel so often for work where things are scheduled and I’m attended to, would I prefer personal travel that had those characteristics? Would visiting resorts have some resonance if I wasn’t functionally visiting them for work on a semi-regular basis?
For the past few weeks I’ve been deliberately constraining my photography by shooting exclusively by a 35mm equivalent lens. This was the focal length that really convinced me that I enjoyed photography as a way of seeing and experiencing the world. I’m a big fan of zoom lenses, and keep eyeing the Olympus 12-40mm 2.8 Pro lens, but I find that I learn the most about a scene by having to walk around it with a bright prime lens.
When I travelled to Cuba, having to march around with a 50mm equivalent lens meant I went into entirely new places and angles that I wouldn’t have if I’d had a zoom lens to otherwise get a shot. And while I’ve previously used my 35mm equivalent, I have to admit that I’ve been far more reliant on some of my zooms and the 50mm; I just haven’t focused on learning to use the 35mm lens because there is so much more walking-by-zooming that I have to do with it compared to even my other prime lenses.
But that’s silly: I enjoy the focal length, I just have to work a lot more to get things out of the camera. So I’ve been using it at night, during the day, and exclusively attached it to my camera body for the past month and intend to bring it (along with an 80-300mm equivalent lens) when I travel to South America in a week and change. I like the idea of an unobtrusive lens as my walkabout, and then the zoom for when I’ve trekking through nature. And, perhaps most importantly, I really like the idea of forcing myself to get a lot more comfortable with my current gear as a way to inhibit my desire to buy more gear: I have functionally underused equipment, and I should be playing with it, first and foremost, before even considering the purchase of new kit.
“We start on the path to genuine adulthood when we stop insisting on our emotional competence and acknowledge the extent to which we are – in many areas of our psyche – likely to be sharply trailing our biological age. Realising we aren’t – as yet, in subtle ways – quite adults may be the start of true maturity.”
I find it really hard to identify the stories in my photographs, prior to actually pushing the shutter button. When I look through, say, my best photos of 2017 I can see which ones have stories embedded within them but it’s a pretty rare thing that I saw, and decided upon, the story before taking the shot. In part, I think that my challenges are linked to only taking my photography more seriously for a relatively short period of time.
But some of the difficulties I’m encountering are also linked with my still learning to take ‘technically’ good photos, after which I think I’ll be more comfortable with more ‘narrative’ style shots. And I want to get better at the latter because I take Martino Pietropoli‘s statement pretty seriously: “Good photos tell stories. Average photos are just beautiful.”
Pietropoli’s article is excellent, insofar as he spends the time to walk through not just the importance of building a story into a photograph but because he also shows examples. In choosing examples he doesn’t merely say ‘here are narrative photos’ but, instead, he spends the time to spell out some of the narratives which might be bundled up in the shots in question. For me, his article was a particularly clear and poignant way of thinking through what stories might be in any given shot, and also as a way to differentiate between what he identifies as narrative versus ‘merely’ beautiful shots.
If I have one critique of the article — and I think it’s pretty minor — it’s that there’s an assumption that someone understands how to take photographs competently, and using this basic competence they can take shots with story. Put another way: I think that a lot of the efforts to create popular stylistic shots are very helpful in teaching people how to use their cameras and lenses, and to think through the importance of framing. Does that mean the people may end up with a series of ‘generic’ skills that many other photographers can roughly approximate or precisely imitate? Absolutely. But just as it’s important to learn how to write the five paragraph essay before breaking into longer-form writing that breaks all the rules of that high school essay format, learning the high-school format in the first place is an important skill that leads to more advanced writing.
I think that spending time looking at Instagram or Flickr or other places which hold ‘beautiful’ images is entirely appropriate for those who are learning to take photographs, and take them seriously. But I also tend to agree with Pietropoli that a photographer must eventually come to a decision: will their photographic style focus principally on technically beautiful shots or, instead, try to engage with the world by evoking emotions and reactions linked to the stories contained in their photos.
New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week
Cypher – a puzzle game about the history of cryptography
Great Photography Shots
I was really impressed with a range of the shots which won in the 2017 International Photographer of the Year contest.
One of the most important things that we can do is surround our lives with things, events, and people which bring joy to our lives. I think that it really matters that when you get up that you’re immersed in whatever it is that excites you: it makes hard days easier, and easy days that must more enjoyable.
Part of the reason that I’m interested in photography is to capture, and bring home, such moments of joy. That doesn’t mean that all photos have to be about babies and weddings but, instead, that whatever is captured resonates with my soul in a way that moves me. It also means that I’m delighted to support other artists who generate art that brings a sense of joy to my life. That doesn’t mean spending thousands of dollars on pieces1 but, instead, being slow and careful and meticulous in amassing a collection of pieces that I fall in love with each time I see them.
But I was bad last year: I didn’t print enough of my own photos and while I was buying art I didn’t immediately have ways to display it that brought the works to life.
So over the past few weeks I’ve invested in new frames to bring those pieces to life. I’m super excited to see what they’re like up on my walls and, in the process of getting everything ready, I’m also that much more interested in acquiring some additional frames — both small and large — so that I can print and view more of the photos that I’ve taken over the past few years.2
I really love the experience of waking up and having everything on the walls bring a smile to my face (or a tear to my eye, in the case of some family photos): there is a sense of life that occurs when our domiciles are filled with our memories. I’m looking forward to putting more of them on my walls.
“What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Great Photography Shots
I’m just blown away by some of the shots taken by Paul Hoi in New Zealand, where he used an infrared camera to transform the green landscapes into a gorgeous, if alien, pink-toned wonderland.
I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to structure my life, not just on a day to day basis, but with the intent of accomplishing something meaningful this year. Some of that relates to personal projects I want to pull off.1 But perhaps the most important thing I want to do this year is develop a really boring habit.
Mike Vardy wrote about his intent improve his personal fitness this year. His description of past attempts to become fit and how that differs from his current behaviours resonated with me. He wrote:
When I was trying to achieve a “body for life” before, I was single and doing it mainly to improve my physique for any potential ladies that I may wind up dating. I wasn’t really doing it for myself.
In contrast, this time he’s doing:
it for myself — and my family. My wife deserves to have a husband who’s in decent shape, and my kids deserve to have a father who can keep up with them. When my youngest turns thirteen, I’ll be fifty. I want to be able to roughhouse with him at that age and not feel it for weeks afterward. I’d also like to give myself the best shot at seeing my kids’ grandkids. Without exercise and proper diet, that just ain’t going to happen
In the past I tried to become more fit by taking it to the extreme. I also felt I had to hide what I was doing to avoid recriminations from family and people I lived with. I exercised when no one was around, or up, and hid the fact I was going on long challenging walks to avoid all kinds of hurtful commentary: getting fit was something that people were bemused about, at best, and openly mocked, at worst. I don’t have that kind of negative energy around me now and, instead, I have the support of people I love.2
I don’t know that my motives are quite the same as Mike: I’m not a father, and don’t intend to become one, nor am I doing this because I think someone else deserves my body in one format or another. No, I’m doing this purely because I would like to be in a situation where I can just say ‘sure, let’s climb that mountain’ and get going. I want to be able to hop on a bike and cycle across one of Canada’s smaller provinces because it would be neat to take that ride. And, more importantly, I want to get in the habit that regular active exercise is just so routine that it’s a normal, established, and boring part of my life.
Tim Cook was asked in the Apple earning call that took place in February about the company had considered whether, and if so how, their battery replacement program might affect replacement rates. The implied comment was the replacements might reduce the likelihood that consumers would upgrade to the new versions of devices, on grounds that some upgrades had historically taken place because people bought new phones as a result of their old ones slowing down or their batteries not providing adequate charge to get through a day. Cook responded that Apple:
did not consider in any way, shape, or form what it would do to upgrade rates. We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do for our customers. I don’t know what effect it will have for our customers. It was not in our thought process of deciding to do what we’ve done.
This is a great answer. Though I do suspect that the battery replacement program will delay some upgrades, I don’t know that such a delay would be inherently bad for the company. Jason Snell wrote that the iPhone 8 — not the X — was a really amazing phone for most people because they tended to be coming from devices that were release two or more years ago. As a result, people that were coming from iPhone 6, 6s, and 5s devices didn’t just get the updates of the iPhone 8 but also all the updates that came to the iPhone 7 and, in some cases, iPhone 6s.
In effect, people who waited three or more years to update ended up being wowed by all of the features in the new iPhone. These are everyday users who really do use words like ‘magic’ and literally utter ‘wow’ when things happen. They laugh with joy when Siri just does something right, or they have calendar items automatically added from their mail. These are the everyday consumers that Apple is making its money from.
These normal users are the ones that are going to be blown away whenever they do an upgrade, and are going to be especially appreciative of all the incremental updates that take place in the extra year they might delay an upgrade. They’re going to talk to their friends and family and co-workers. They might also talk about how the battery situation sucked while, simultaneously, mentioning how no other company offers a similar replacement program. Probably the only equivalent they’ll be able to think of was Samsung’s global recall of devices that were literally exploding in people’s hands.
Quotation of the Week
“By retreating into ourselves, it looks as if we are the enemies of others, but our solitary moments are in reality a homage to the richness of social existence. Unless we’ve had time alone, we can’t be who we would like to be around our fellow humans. We won’t have original opinions. We won’t have lively and authentic perspectives. We’ll be – in the wrong way – a bit like everyone else.”
I’ve been thinking about how high technology is continuing to develop at a pace that outruns the least well off in our Western societies. I think that this was best crystallized in Amazon’s opening of its first Amazon Go store, which does away with cashiers and replaces them with cameras and sensors that automatically identify what you acquire for purchase and charge you as you leave the space. There are at least three (immediate) concerns that strike me with regard to these kinds of technologies:
As noted by Hanna Brooks Olsen, these are inherently cashless technologies. Consumers will enter the store with their smartphones, cameras and sensors will track them, and be billed automatically to their debit or credit card(s) associated with the Amazon account. For persons who have a hard time acquiring a smartphone, or having it repaired when damaged, or opening a bank account or obtaining a credit card, or possessing a language barrier, or without access to a convenient and reliable place to charge their devices, or those who rely on the cash economy, these kinds of ‘convenient’ stores are nearly impenetrable fortresses. Those who cannot enter and purchase goods in the stores will be those who are often the least privileged and, rather than being confronted by the diversity of the human population, shoppers in Amazon Go-type stores will have some portion of society’s diversity simply deleted from their shopping experience. As stated by Olsen, “cashless life … is necessarily one of privilege.”
These are anti-labour technologies. In promoting ‘convenience’ Amazon Go and equivalent technologies remove a certain portion of low skill jobs that many people depend on for their livelihoods. While the popular conception is that it’s just students who have these kinds of jobs, simply looking at service jobs belies this point: the age groups which have sales or sales service jobs are rising, and this is exacerbated by an older population who has to work longer into their retirement years simply to survive, let alone thrive. By removing, or at least significantly reducing, the number of low-skill jobs the numbers of persons who are struggling and unable to find work will increase and their social hardships be exacerbated.1
Cashless systems and those which remove labourers are inherently political technologies. They are technologies designed for a particular set of people, to solve what one group in society regards as ‘problems’, and which could significantly reshape how elements of society operate. Should these technologies cease to be ‘technology’ per se and be normalized as ‘infrastructure’ then it will be challenging to ‘reformat and replace’ the technology and ameliorate its long-term social impacts.2 Transforming cashless into infrastructure threatens to deepen the the aforementioned difficulties.
Aren’t there solutions to the aforementioned problems? Of course there are. But any solutions will likely impose costs on those who are developing, advocating for, and using convenience technologies that detrimentally affect the least well off or privileged. Solutions might entail:
establishing a guaranteed way for all persons to obtain banking accounts with diminished identification or language requirements;3
providing either a basic living wage or reducing the barriers to accessing social welfare benefits, to offset the reduction of low-skill employment opportunities; or
reducing educational costs or fully subsidizing such costs so that we as a society can improve the educational status of many of those affected by shrinking low-skill labour. However, education is often seen as the silver bullet when it should be regarded as a tarnished and dented brass shield instead: educational requirements for mid-skilled labour may be too onerous for some persons who have mental, psychological, or physical challenges. Similarly, if there is a major gap between initial education and when it is (re)required, such as when a middle income person loses their job after 25+ years of performing the same tasks, then a short 6- or 12-month course may be insufficient. Education may help to address some job loss linked to convenient technologies but education, alone, is insufficient to ‘solve’ the social challenges linked with such technologies and infrastructures.
It’s pretty rare that major news reports about novel and emerging technologies are accompanied with real-work implications of the technologies, should they transform to infrastructure. It’s even rarer for minor news reports to consider the social, ethical, or political implications of new technologies. Instead, the focuses tend to be on whether a new user interface is ‘fun’ or ‘convenient enough’ or ‘fast enough’. Those are the concerns of the majority. We need to far more seriously consider how our developing technologies will affect those least well off, or else risk further stratifying social and economic divides and widening the rift between the most and least privileged members of society.
Quotation of the Week
“We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”
The current Amazon Go location does have employees working there, just not as cashiers, and the company hasn’t taken the population of would-be-cashiers and moved them to other locations. The very point is to remove cashiers as an occupation and number of employees from the experience. ↩
One of the challenges to obtaining a bank account is that customers may require a fixed address, telephone number, or other identifiers. While such identifiers are often stable and available to the majority of the population they are fluid for those who lack secure housing, employment, and other ‘normal’ components of daily living. ↩
I’ve been trying to clean up aspects of my digital past for the past six or eight months. To date, that’s mostly meant migrating content between a range of different platforms to consolidate it. The ultimate goal is to move all personal stuff to either a private journal or public blog (this one), all business and work-related stuff migrated to my professional website, permanently delete tens of thousands of old emails (and empty old email accounts),1 and re-evaluate the different social media accounts that I possess and close/delete at least some of them.
In the course of this digital cleanup I’ve stumbled across lots of old writings, communications, and thoughts. Most are pretty banal but others remind me of significant moments in my life. Small things, like the first time I signed a lease or received notice that I was accepted into graduate schools. Notifications of family health emergencies. And too many messages from friends to which I didn’t respond.
Why am I cleaning things up? In part, for privacy and security reasons. I’ve tried to keep a relatively ‘clean’ online profile but know that my more youthful self was less mindful of what was put online that I am today. There are regular stories about accounts being penetrated and documents either being directly leaked to the public or, worse, being selectively modified and then subsequently published. The best way of addressing such threats starts by getting rid of materials that might be used in such doxing operations and old accounts that might offer insight into my private life.
I think that the process of going through and deleting items, however, also stems from my distaste for how near-permanent retention affects human relationships. In his book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Victor Mayer Schonberger argues that humans have evolved to forget many of our interactions with one another in order to facilitate long-term relationships with one another. He impresses on the reader that it is important to add ‘forgetfulness’ to digital data collection processes and, as I wrote previously,
draws what are arguably correct theoretical conclusions (we need to get a lot better at deleting data to avoid significant normative, political, and social harms) while drawing absolutely devastatingly incorrect technological solutions (key: legislating ‘forgetting’ into all data formats and OSes).
We don’t remember all of the slights in a relationship, or all the harsh words spoken between one another, or even the abnormally positive comments or actions. As a result, we can have interactions with people who might have really upset us in the past because the reasons of that upset fade over time: we say that ‘time heals all wounds’ for a reason. It turns out that it’s because of human evolution!
So by retaining our memories permanently in a digital format there is the perpetual chance that we’re reminded of things that our minds have forgotten on our behalves. Perfect and permanent recollection isn’t the norm, and in our race to digitize and remember everything forever our technical aspirations are stepping beyond the nature of our bodies. Now we exceed our own bodily capabilities in lots of ways — humans are functionally cyborgs — but affecting our psychological interactions with one another strikes me, personally, as having potentially dangerous social implications. As a result, I tend to regard my current process of deleting parts of my past, forever, as a mental health practice as well as a practice linked to privacy or security.
The last few months of 2017 were hard for me. One of the ways that I know this is I took up hobbies that didn’t contribute to my development as a person and were, instead, simply pleasurable ways of wasting away time and trying to relax in the absence of doing anything of import. But it never really felt right: I had nothing to show at the end of the activities and typically wasn’t any happier with myself by the end of the recreation period.
Some of that is scar tissue from past relationships and past work-life imbalances.2 And some of it is linked to historical coping methods in periods of high stress. But this year I want to ensure that I find more productive outputs to relax so as to to find enjoyment in personal creation and to ensure that I can develop and grow as a person instead of just wasting away precious time. That doesn’t mean I’m never going to waste away time but, instead, that I want to be more deliberate and measured when I do decide to indulge in pointless recreation that doesn’t contribute to my personal enrichment.
“To make real change, you have to be well anchored – not only in the belief that it can be done, but also in some pretty real ways about who you are and what you can do.”
Vincent Laforet strapped an iPhone 7 to the bottom of a Lear jet and then flew in a straight direction while activating the iPhone’s panorama mode. He’s sharing photos over at Instagram. They’re absolutely spectacular and show just what you can do with smartphone cameras.
I don’t delete the actual email accounts because I’m mindful of a company re-using my old usernames and them potentially transforming into a vector for phishing. Yahoo! did this to their users. ↩
It’s really hard for me to just take time to myself when that time isn’t productive in some sense. I can identify the reasons why but knowledge on its own isn’t sufficient to overcome the feeling of being ‘bad’. ↩