Random thought of the day: ten-thousand-year-old photographs

I think it might have been idly browsing through some of the photos that I’ve loaded here, not sure. Maybe it was thinking about buying a digital camera. Whatever, I was randomly musing this afternoon about the effects of digital video and photography on culture, history, myth.

Our closeness still to the beginnings of any form of image capture — never mind moving image capture or colour image capture or digital image capture — means that our ability to look clearly into the past is fogged. Like someone with myopia, there’s only so far we can see before things get very messy and unclear. We see the past in religious iconography, or romantic portraiture, or grainy black-and-white newsreel.

We can’t look back further than about 150 years before image capture was the domain of the artist. For moving pictures, it’s about 100 years. For colour, it’s about 60-70. Even events of a few decades ago were very poorly recorded. It’s incredibly significant to our approach as a culture to the Kennedy assassination, for example, that the poor-quality Zapruder film is the only visual record of any completeness. Its power and immediacy encourages us — invites us — to believe that the solution to the crime is somewhere out there, just beyond the frame. Yet its shakiness, its amateurishness, frustratingly denies any such possibility. How would we see the Kennedy assassination differently if there existed multiple high-definition digital films of those moments, from all angles and vantage points? How different would the effect of the assassination have been on the second half of the twentieth century? Would such an assassination even have been attempted, knowing that the presence of so much high-fidelity recording equipment would make it unavoidably public?

The shift to digital media is dizzingly significant. Photographic prints, however good the quality, fade, tear, burn. Digital media themselves might have an expiry date, but they copy with perfect fidelity. A hundred years, a thousand years. Ten thousand years. What would it mean to have digital photographs of the height of Egyptian civilisation? A digital recording of the Sermon on the Mount? We’ll never have those things, but there’s no reason why digital media being created now shouldn’t persist for a hundred years, a thousand years, ten thousand years. Our cultures now will be as distant then as ancient Egypt is to us. How strange, then, to be able to view an image from ten thousand years before that’s every bit as clear as one created yesterday. Time won’t mean quite the same thing. Suddenly, as for the myopic man given glasses, everything in time will be in focus.

Studies of history, anthropology, will be radically different. Myth will have to adjust to the clear gaze of the digital camera, since it won’t be able to fall back on accounts mutated over countless retellings. Expect a kind of Luddite backlash against the tyranny of the digital image, by people for whom there’s comfort in the rose-tinted blurriness of unassisted human memory.

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