All Things Must Pass

September 01, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

These things too will pass away. This was the wisdom provided to a Persian King when he tasked his wise men with giving him an answer he could use that would always be true. We all have to come to terms with the fact that nothing lasts forever, even if we hope for a little extension in execution. Much later the more cynical view of Benjamin Franklin was that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.
Of course in the days of the Persian Empire it would be fair to say social change and technology  progressed rather slowly and had very little impact on the average citizen whose life, not being royalty, was likely to be harsh and short. These days not only do all things move at a much faster pace, but as we generally live longer, we are more likely to be affected by it, and at times struggle to adapt to it.

We can all draw on numerous examples but an interesting one just popped up on the morning news regarding the long drawn out debacle over HS2, the proposed high speed link for train services from London to the north. By the time you read this the debate may have been resolved over  massive escalating costs, and dubious long term benefits. But at the heart of the issue, as one observer has just pointed out, is that the scheme was conceived when saving journey time seemed to be a priority. Ten years ago it was assumed that an extra half an hour on a train was wasted time. That was before we all went mobile and carriages were equipped with wi-fi and charging points so that passengers could continue to work on their tablets and laptops, and it didn’t matter if you were going to be late for a meeting because you could start the discussion on line.
So facts that seemed to be taken as certainties turn out to be false assumptions as the future renders them redundant. These things too...
The fragility of  accepted knowledge has never been so starkly put into focus than by the pace of modern digital developments in all forms of so-called intelligent devices. The speed of change in the technology has forced a radical rethink in the way we work and interact socially, or at least it has for most of us.
Working in print I have had no choice but to adapt to the new ways we talk with customers, and exchange information. And it works both ways because it has changed the way they react with us very much influenced by the immediate but often more impersonal nature of the transaction. And of course there is the other issue in that just because we have had to adapt to change, it doesn’t mean that all our customers have to.
It may come as a shock to younger readers for whom a mobile phone is an essential life support unit, but there are sentient beings who can survive quite happily without constantly checking their email or social media updates. And they are not all those rapidly approaching pensionable age.
Back in the last century we often communicated by a thing called a letter which involved a note, often handwritten without the help of predictive text, explaining exactly what we wanted, and put it in the care of a skilled operative called a postman who would deliver it safely, and accepting that it would likely take several days to get a reply by the same system. A primitive arrangement by today’s standards, but it worked, and people would commonly sit down to read and understand the whole of it, not just swipe through bits they thought might be important.
In a twenty first century world, where people demand immediate attention regardless of whether it’s really important or just a liking of a picture of their cat doing something stupid, it’s often difficult to sort through the fog of electronic information overload to get to anything that really matters. Which is why things that matter get missed, or just misunderstood. There’s enough room for confusion in any form of communication without adding all the variables that digital data opens up.  
When you had to write you physically formed the word which gave you at least a chance to cross it out or change your mind. The speed and convenience of letting a machine do the thinking for you is potentially flawed as it might check the spelling but not common sense. 
So you have customers who use the technology, and use it badly, and others who simply refuse to deal with it at all. The latter is actually quite understandable as digital information is such a temporary disposable item.
Those who lived before it took over appreciate the value of solid things in the real world, like print. Even that will fade and fall apart in time. But digital files, and images, are particularly prone to degradation and loss - something that few people seem to realise when they carry so much that is important to them on a device no larger than the palm of a hand. These things too may pass away much quicker !
Paper of course has a history going back hundreds of years, and film over a hundred and fifty. Compared to that, the basic Jpeg is a spawning infant. There will no doubt be a solution to preserving pixels long term, perhaps transferring to a different media as we now transfer old analogue tapes to digital. But even after more than a century the total amount of film ever shot has probably already been overtaken by the billions of instant snaps taken at random on phones and other mobile devices. Choosing what to preserve for history may be a bit of a challenge.
Digital information, unlike full sized hard copy, also has an achilles heel in how it actually stores the actual details of a file, colour, resolution etc. The most common file types in use, Jpegs and PDFs are compression files to make them easier to transfer by email or upload to and from web sites. They save space by reducing the amount of information they contain. This may not be a problem at first use but over time continued opening and saving may do untold damage. The long term prospects for digital archives are of course yet to be discovered because no one has a fifty year old jpeg.
When I started shooting digital, some twenty years ago, I used Jpeg exclusively because, like a lot of photographers new to the format, I didn’t know any better. And in any case the digital cameras available were fairly basic in performance compared to the models of today so we accepted the quality we had in hand, not only in capture, but in processing. The Adobe Photoshop for the day, which would have been something like number 5, That would be an old Reliant three wheeler compared to a modern hybrid hatchback alongside the current Creative cloud offering.
That meant that not only were file formats very basic, so were the editing possibilities.
Gradually we became aware of this mysterious format called RAW, which is a curious halfway house between a processed and unprocessed image.
It’s still subject to the capture settings on the camera but not relying on the devices processor to determine the output, so that a huge amount of manipulation is possible at leisure on the computer screen. With film, once you’d developed the negative and fixed it that was it. You could do a certain amount in the darkroom afterwards, but if it was badly over or under exposed in the first place, you could never recover it. 
Quite a lot of cameras are now able to shoot RAW, although most of their owners may not be aware of it or how to use it properly. Manufacturers however have realised that it is the best way we have with present knowledge to preserve an original image for future use. RAW is the thing that separates an amateur from a more professional user, so if you have a photographer trying to baffle you with jargon and he’s not using RAW at source, you can draw your own conclusions.
Nothing lasts forever but some things may last longer than most.....



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