The risks of losing our digital photos and memories

digital-photo-memories
South Brisbane (Southbank), circa 1978), just prior to construction of the Queensland Cultural Centre) Author’s photo scanned from a colour slide.

Whenever I think about going through our thousands of family and travel photos, be they in digital form, colour prints or scanned to the computer, I develop what migraine sufferers assure me is not a migraine, just a headache.

The problem begins with the lack of a system. Few people other than professional photographers or serious hobbyists catalogue their photos and negatives in a logical way. So good luck looking for that photo of your little brother skateboarding when he was 10. It’s in there somewhere.

Recently, a family member took on a big project – to collect photos across seven decades to put in a book for my brother-in-law’s 70th birthday. This social media-savvy young person wisely, I thought, decided to capture the images permanently in a printed book.

The early contributions of course were box brownie snaps from somebody’s shoebox, scanned and photo shopped where appropriate. Some were from colour slides, also scanned and photo shopped, usually to obtain a larger image. Then we delved into photo albums from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, until the digital folders began.

Maybe we were late adaptors to digital cameras, but we seem to have left film and negatives behind only in the early years of the 21st century. By that time, they’d been in common use for a decade, even though Steve Sassoon of Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975. We came home after a six-month sojourn abroad in 2004 with 60 CDs of photos we burned from images downloaded on to a borrowed computer.

Since then, my non-system has accumulated piecemeal on laptops, back-up drives and memory sticks. She Who Also Takes Photos has a smarter system in that she can readily find images by subject.

No such luck on my computer. For example, a folder labelled ‘March, needs sorting’ on review contains just 15 (of 97) images worth keeping. In the late 1990s, we both clung to shooting film on SLRs and sending the film off to a cut-price mail order business. Digital cameras and later cameras in smart phones replaced this process, which was costly.  You often had to wait a week or more until you could relive the memories from Aunt Gladys’s 90th. If only she hadn’t blinked.

I recall learning how to produce my own prints from negatives, albeit in black and white. Few young people today would know the thrill of seeing a photo you took that day materialise in a tray of chemicals.

If you watched the Netflix series, The Crown, you’d have seen a dramatization of one of the best film photographers of the time in action. Tony Armstrong-Jones is depicted in the dark-room with his latest amour (Princess Margaret), trying on what appears to be a well-rehearsed seduction technique. He’d taken an intimate shot, with bare shoulders – against mores of the time (1959). Margaret, who comments, “It’s a Margaret nobody has seen,” resists his blandishments (but not for long, Ed).

Film and self-processing makes a comeback

As Alexandro Genova wrote in Time magazine last year, there is a small but determined resistance to digital photography among amateurs and professionals alike. Some are effusive about film and its “unexpected palette, the grain and dynamic range”.

Portraitist Ryan Pfluger says of Kodak’s decision to revive Ektachrome film, that the “creamy ’70s tone” channels his fascination with memory and nostalgia.

Genova’s article is framed by a stunning shot of a wildfire in Glacier National Park, Montana. The image is by professional photographer and artist David Benjamin Sherry, who processes and prints his own work.

“There’s a spirituality that’s connected to it. I go out to take the pictures and at the end of the day I’m by myself, alone with my thoughts, in the dark room. It becomes very meditative,” he told Genova.

No doubt the majority of hobbyists, oblivious to this meditative magic, will continue to snap what used to be called ‘candids’ on their smart phones. They can then post instantly to Facebook, Instagram, or other social media outlets.

The 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean revolutionised the way media covers news. Digital Spy’s correspondent Hunter Skipworth says the stark images of the tragedy were filmed by ordinary people, using their phones to capture images and video. From then on, anytime a major news event happened, anywhere in the world, it would be filmed by a citizen on their smart phone. That was a fairly short advance from the first commercially available digital SLR in 1991 (Nikon’s 1.3 megapixel camera, intended for use by press photographers). By the mid-1990s Casio, Kodak, Sony and others joined the race to produce an affordable digital camera. Digital Spy reveals that Apple had a short-lived flirtation in this field in 1995 with the QuickTake 100. Apple went on to focus on the Iphone with built-in cameras. Good move, Steve.

Most smart phones have cameras which have at least 4 megapixels and often up to 12mp – good enough quality for a ‘citizen’ photo. The practise is so widespread now most newspapers carry a regular ‘reader’s photo’.

However galling that may be to professional photographers and videographers who spent a lifetime learning their trades, it comes down to who first captures the image.

Facebook, which had a modest debut in 2004, surfed in on an explosive wave of change. The introduction of the iPhone in 2007, universal access to broadband and perhaps the invention of the ‘selfie stick’, all helped Facebook become the behemoth it is today.

My friend Mr Shiraz is slowly collecting images of his now adult children (and their offspring), with the idea of permanently preserving them in photo albums. He’s not alone in this quest.

Like others with Gen Y and Gen X offspring, he can see the potential for a catastrophic fail arising from the ubiquitous habit of impulsively posting memorable photos, trusting the archiving to that most nebulous of beasts, The Cloud.

Here’s an example, from the days when hacking mischief was in its infancy, of what can go wrong. In 2001 our computer was infected by the I Love You virus, which among other nasty deeds corrupted all JPG files. It was not such a disaster for us as we were still mainly wedded to film.

As we plough through our old photos, a common problem arises. Here’s your father as a young lad, standing with…now who are those three other people? There’s nothing written on the back and the people who could tell you are long gone.

The same fate awaits the millions of images consigned to the ‘cloud’ –data servers located, well, somewhere. You can establish when the image was taken, but not by whom. Nor, unless someone has ‘tagged’ the images with people’s names, can you determine who is in the photo or where it was taken.

What is even more annoying is not knowing who took the photograph: surely that matters? I’ll leave you with this rare snap of The Goodwills busking in Melbourne’s Bourke Street (a while ago).

No, I don’t know who took it. Perhaps it was a ‘selfie?’

 

King decrees universal basic income

king-basic-income
King decrees universal basic income Image by Jason Train, Flickr https://flic.kr/p/f1BBQu

The question for the week is, what, apart from introducing a universal basic income, would you do if you were King, President or Prime Minister for a day? The term ‘King for a Day,’ which has inspired more than a dozen pop songs and an obscure opera by Verdi, implies that for 24 hours you get to be loved by the masses. You can loll about in a high-backed chair, gold orb and sceptre in hand, and be fawned over – mint juleps and the like.

In the Silly Season, media outlets tend to ask people questions like this, for a news slot or an inconveniently empty news hole next to a couple of ads. The ABC North Queensland asked a bunch of 11-year-old kids and some senior citizens what they’d do if they were Prime Minister for the day. Some of the answers were predictable enough. Sophie, 11 said, “Give everyone a day off so adults can take their kids out (and make theme parks free).” James (10) said he’d employ more scientists so Australia can get its research skills up (reserve that kid a cabinet post, circa 2030). Keira (11) wanted more national parks; Charlotte (11) wanted a program for kids to do work experience and be taught something they want to do.

If I could be King for a Day, I’d single out the dysfunctional tax and welfare systems and propose the following reforms:

Introduction of a universal basic income for all adults: $25k a year, indexed, no strings attached. Adults are free to earn money over and above the $25k, but it will be taxed on a sliding scale to the maximum rate for anyone earning more than, say, $150k.

Hypothetically, a previously unemployed or under-employed couple could, with a tax-free household income of $50,000, find jobs, start a business, renovate the spare bedroom, and join Airbnb and ramp up their annual income in a myriad of ways. Their only duty would be to the Tax Office.

Treasury boffins would be responsible for reforming the tax system to ensure the universal basic income could be funded and that as few people as possible are disadvantaged. Treasury could find ways to encourage business to work with this new system, for example offering generous tax rebates for research and development.

In my Kingdom, all forms of social welfare would be replaced by a new regime, overseen by the Office of Financial and Social Opportunity and Incentivisation (NOOFASOI). The office would oversee payment of the UBI and iron out the inevitable wrinkles in a new and untested system.

This is not just a FOMM flight of fancy

Countries as diverse as Finland, France, Ireland, Norway, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, Iceland, India and Brazil are either talking about universal basic income or trialling it in one form or another. Switzerland had a referendum, and while the people said no, it shows how front of mind this issue has become. Indeed, Australia has a university-sponsored programme to research income security.

And the Parliament of Australia published this comprehensive yet concise policy paper by Don Henry, for those who want to find out more.

The media went on a feeding frenzy recently after the end of the first year of Finland’s two-year trial to dole out a subsistence amount (no strings attached) to 2,000 unemployed Finns. The Finnish government (wisely) is letting the experiment run and will only look at it the results when the trial ends.

I would not pretend to understand the complexities of financing a universal basic income and the social engineering required to make it work.

An OECD report in 2017 said that despite well-publicised campaigns for a Basic Income, no country has put a BI in place as a pillar of income support for the working age population.

“The recent upsurge in attention to BI proposals in OECD countries, including those with long-standing traditions of providing comprehensive social protection, is therefore remarkable,” the report says.

It’s not so remarkable when one looks into the growing inequality that is being spawned by job losses as a result of automation and digital disruption. As Oxfam said last week, 42 people hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people in the poorest half of the world’s population.

This is clearly not sustainable. 

From where I sit, the domination of the contract or ‘gig economy’ and a part-time, casual workforce has left the welfare system behind. Moreover, the welfare bureaucracy is unrealistically punitive, in that it forces the unemployed to prove they are pursuing fast-disappearing jobs to qualify for support.

Mainstream conservative publications including The Economist and the Financial Times have canvassed the UBI debate. As the FT said, it “strengthens a sense that the traditional welfare state is no longer fit for purpose”.

The advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are threatening many jobs around the world, the FT said, adding that most workers have come to accept that the job for life has gone for good.

But if the intent of a UBI is to lift people out of poverty and ensure wealthier people pay their fair share of tax, it’s not that simple.

The OECD report concludes that introducing a UBI in countries with strong social support systems would not solve poverty and would lead to higher taxes. Others warn against dismantling welfare systems, which, however flawed, are at least a safety net for the poor and disadvantaged.

George Zarkadakis, an AI engineer and writer, outlined some of the flaws in an article for Huffington Post. Zarkadakis dismissed talk of taxing the cash reserves of fully automated companies, saying this would affect their ability to invest and innovate; they would lose their competitive position to low-tax or zero tax regimes. Likewise, he was sceptical about the hi-tech and energy companies that are lobbying for (and prepared to help fund) a UBI, arguing that this would give them undue political influence.

The ancient ideal of a UBI (Thomas More’s social satire, Utopia, published in 1516), frees creative people and artisans around the fringes of the commercial world to develop their skills without financial pressure. The ‘shall we tell Centrelink?’ poser goes into the dustbin of history, along with the often inaccurate stereotype of the ‘goddamn, long-haired hippy dole bludger’. People on disability pensions would no longer have to get stressed about the fluctuating cycles of their illnesses. For example, a person receiving the blind pension (which is not means tested), can lose it if they recover some sight. There is also the travesty where workers made redundant find out that 30 years of paying tax counts for nothing. Unless their payout is locked up in super, they’ll have to spend every cent of it before dipping into the public purse.

Even a theoretical discussion about a UBI should alert us to many of the anomalies in our welfare system, which arise from outdated legislation and an institutionalised idea that people are out to rort the system.

As for my Kingly privileges for a day (you can tell how far along we are with ‘The Crown’), I was so busy hunting grouse, inspecting broodmares, dallying with ladies-in-waiting and whatnot, I never got around to doing anything. Terribly sorry.

More reading: Hardship in Australia