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In the Future, We Will Photograph Everything and Look at Nothing.
Today everything exists to end in a photograph,” Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal 1977 book “On Photography.” This was something I thought about when I recently read that Google was making its one-hundred-and-forty-nine-dollar photo-editing suite, the Google Nik Collection, free. This photo-editing software is as beloved among photographers as, say, Katz’s Deli is among those who dream of pastrami sandwiches.
Before Google bought it, in 2012, the collection cost five hundred dollars. It is made up of seven pieces of specialized software that, when used in combination with other photo-editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom, give photographers a level of control akin to that once found in the darkroom. They can mimic old film stock, add analog photo effects, or turn color shots into black-and-white photos. The suite can transform modestly good photos into magical ones. Collectively, Nik’s intellectual sophistication is that of a chess grand master. I don’t mind paying for the software, and neither do thousands of photographers and enthusiasts. So, like many, I wondered, why would Google make it free?
My guess is that it wants to kill the software, but it doesn’t want the P.R. nightmare that would follow. Remember the outcry over its decision to shut down its tool for R.S.S. feeds, Google Reader? Nik loyalists are even more rabid. By making the software free, the company can both ignore the product and avoid a backlash. But make no mistake: it is only a matter of time before Nik goes the way of the film camera—into the dustbin of technological history.
“The giveaway is bad news, as it means the software they paid for has almost [certainly] reached the end of the line in terms of updates,” wrote PC World. And, as Google explained in the blog post announcing the news, the company will “focus our long-term investments in building incredible photo editing tools for mobile.” That means Google Photos, the company’s tool for storing and sorting, and Nik’s own Snapseed app for mobile phones.
Google’s comments—disheartening as they might be—reflect the reality of our shifting technologies. Sure, we all like listening to music on vinyl, but that doesn’t mean streaming music on Spotify is bad. Streaming just fits today’s world better. I love my paper and ink, but I see the benefits of the iPad and Apple Pencil. Digital photography is going through a similar change, and Google is smart to refocus.
To understand Google’s decision, one needs to understand how our relationship with photographs has changed. From analog film cameras to digital cameras to iPhone cameras, it has become progressively easier to take and store photographs. Today we don’t even think twice about snapping a shot. About two years ago, Peter Neubauer, the co-founder of the Swedish database company Neo Technology, pointed out to me that photography has seen the value shift from “the stand-alone individual aesthetic of the artist to the collaborative and social aesthetic of services like Facebook and Instagram.” In the future, he said, the “real value creation will come from stitching together photos as a fabric, extracting information and then providing that cumulative information as a totally different package.”
His comments make sense: we have come to a point in society where we are all taking too many photos and spending very little time looking at them.
“The definition of photography is changing, too, and becoming more of a language,” the Brooklyn-based artist and professional photographer Joshua Allen Harris told me. “We’re attaching imagery to tweets or text messages, almost like a period at the end of a sentence. It’s enhancing our communication in a whole new way.”
In other words, “the term ‘photographer’ is changing,” he said. As a result, photos are less markers of memories than they are Web-browser bookmarks for our lives. And, just as with bookmarks, after a few months it becomes hard to find photos or even to navigate back to the points worth remembering. Google made hoarding bookmarks futile. Today we think of something, and then we Google it. Photos are evolving along the same path as well.
Humans have two billion smartphones, and, based on the ultra-conservative assumption that we each upload about two photos a day to various Internet platforms, that means we take about four billion photographs a day. It’s hard to imagine how many photos total are sitting on our devices.
Thanks to our obsession with photography—and, in particular, the cultural rise of selfies—the problem of how to sort all these images has left the realm of human capabilities. Instead, we need to augment humans with machines, which are better at sifting through thousands of photos, analyzing them, finding commonalities, and drawing inferences around moments that matter. Machines can start to learn our style of photography.
Google Photos, a service the company has fully committed to, is built to do just that—organize and enhance maddeningly large photo libraries. Upload your photos to Google’s Cloud and the program will sort through them, remove duplicates, pick out the best ones, tag them, build albums of your vacations, and create animated GIFs for you to share with others. The Assistant feature even edits your photos. The human just has to dump a lot of stuff in a pile; the machine takes care of the rest.
The more photos Google has, the easier it is for its algorithms to learn and become even more precise and effective at the job of creatively editing. I worry about Google’s data ethics and about the idea of handing over the corpus of my life, but I can’t deny that it is exceptional at making sense of my ever-growing photo library. Facebook, too, is clever at arranging photos along the axis of relationships and time. This is a moment for incredible automation, because of the confluence of affordable and large-scale parallel computation, the increased availability of bigger data sets, and advanced deep-learning algorithms.
It’s not just improved technological capabilities bringing about this shift. Google, Facebook, and Instagram are also reacting to a larger shift away from desktop-oriented computing to always-on computing via our Chromebooks, phones, tablets, and other devices. These devices essentially need software that is built to work with the Cloud, not with one machine on your desk. The functionality of the desktop-centric Nik Collection and its plugins is going to be and should be shoved into mobile apps such as Snapseed and VSCO. Just as apps like Instagram and devices like iPhone made us all able to take decent photos, the new intelligent software should make all our shots effortlessly better, as well as much easier to find and share.
The amateur in me is thrilled by the prospect of living in the Cloud, editing on the go. The purist in me wonders if, in the future, desktop photo editing will be like the film-photography revival of today—a luxury to feed our nostalgia, a wistful effort to exercise human control over a task machines have taken over from us. I wonder what Sontag would make of that.