For a while now, a rant has been fermenting in my brain about the increasing tendency of cameramakers to make cameras do what software is supposed to. It leads to "competition by electronic features," which seems vaguely like cheating somehow, and to control bloat in the menus, some of which have gone way past absurd at this point. So color me ripe to encounter for the first time this wonderful little essay by the musician and producer Brian Eno, from the archives of Wired magazine. It's 11 years old now, but timeless...at least for the time being. If anything, things have gotten worse since.
It's philosophy of technology, so if you avoid that sort of thing, then avoid. But if I ever manage to edit that "Readings for Photographers" book project I periodically threaten, this one would make the cut.
(Thanks to Alexey Merz)
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Marty McAuliff: "Great article... 'In my experience, the instruments and tools that endure (because they are loved by their users) have limited options.' That's the ticket right there."
Featured Comment by Craig Norris: "Beautiful!! Exactly what I've been feeling but was unable to explain so succinctly as he has. His thoughts apply directly to the many discussions we have all had about camera design in these modern times."
Featured Comment by Scott Baker: "Wow, that's brilliant. ...Um...what he said."
Featured Comment by Geoff Wittig: "Brian Eno is a sage, and not just in the musical domain. The difference between mental gymnastics and neuromuscular coordination is not one of degree, but one of kind. Interposing an endlessly ramifying network of algorithms between artist and art is toxic to the process.
"I'm currently dealing with an analogous problem in my 'day job' of family medicine. My practice just converted from paper charts to an 'electronic health record', essentially a paperless system accessed with a laptop. It's endlessly flexible and customizable with countless options...which is exactly the problem. There are plenty of decision trees, 'canned' order algorithms and templated check-off lists; but accessing and using them imposes a very unwelcome 'friction' on the process. It also tends to direct or constrain a physician's diagnostic thinking in ways that are (to me) very bothersome. I find myself consistently ignoring the pre-built templates and typing in free-text descriptions and assessments; none of the 'canned' templates or algorithms are precisely right; and I insist on being precise. People are not widgets.
"I'm reminded of Edward Tufte's brilliant essay, 'The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint.' In it Tufte points out the disastrous ways presentation software constrained and conditioned the thinking of NASA engineers, leading directly to the (first!) Shuttle catastrophe due to fallacious logic."
Mike replies: On a near-trivial level, I have the same trouble with the Categories list for this blog. I have way too many categories, and yet I often feel like a given post doesn't fit well into any existing one. I just don't think well in terms of categories...I never start out by thinking, "okay, time for another 'Education and Portfolios' post."
Jim Hughes adds: As Gene Smith jotted on one of his thousands of 3x5" notecards, as found among his papers at the CCP in Arizona: "Hardening of the categories causes art disease."
Featured Comment by psu: "This is almost cliché, but streamlining the options and paying attention to design is what has brought Apple back from the brink over the last ten years. An enduring myth of software is that it is an infinitely malleable thing that admits to infinite customization. What you actually get when you build systems that way is a mess of choices users don't actually want to make. Having the courage to impose your design on the user generally has a better chance of working out."
Featured Comment by Tee: "D700. Three years. Never, not once, did I want to shoot JPEG. Not a single time.
"Instead, doing the two-button-reset, to get myself out of some nightmare (quite regularly) I somehow end up all ready to be shooting JPEG. Again.
"Result? I have tons of JPEGs on my computer—because, being fully consumed by creative thought (says who, but whatever), I forget to tick it back to RAW. Not every time. But often enough to drive me nuts.
"I'd pay someone good money to eliminate that option. For good. Banish. Eradicate. Make go away permanently. Along with another 80% of 'options'—the crud they call 'options,' anyway.
- Color space? Set once. Then gone.
- File size? Gone.
- ADR? You may want it. I don't. Let me make it disappear.
- Retouching options? Seriously? Has anyone, ever, used those? GONE.
"If my camera had just a dozen 'clean' options, I'd be a better photographer. Less frustrated too. And I'd actually use the options I need, instead of avoiding them for fear of feeling stupid when I can't get my camera to fire for some bloody reason, during a critical moment, because I inadvertently messed something up. Somewhere. Somewhere I can't even remember how to get back to.
"Sorry for the rant. Hit a nerve."
Featured Comment by Player: "I set up a modest home recording studio consisting of a Korg D-1600mkII digital recorder, a Boss DR-880 drum machine, an Alesis ML-9600 Masterlink, an FMR pre-amp and compressor, a pair of Alesis M1 Mk2 monitors, and a TC Helicon VoicePrism. The capability I had to shape my sound was amazing, even the ability to add rasp to my vocals or create a four-part harmony along with thousands of musical effects and artificial drum tracks. I had fun with it for awhile until I realized that I would never be able to reproduce my songs live, plus it troubled me knowing that I was producing something that didn't represent what I really sounded like, vocally or musically, sort of like Photoshop gone wild. It was dishonest, and I ended up hating my music even though it sounded pretty impressive.
"The result of my experiment is that I am on this uncompromising path of 'honesty.' I fingerplay an acoustic guitar and sing. When I record now it's with an Edirol R-09 mini-recorder that's the size of a pack of cigarettes, no overdubs, like a live performance. It's truly how I sound, take it or leave it, and it's honest. Take away all the options and complexity and you're forced to focus on your art, confront it, deal with it, like looking in the mirror, or like shooting Tri-X in a manual camera and wet printing, to concentrate on what's really important."
Featured Comment by Svein-Frode: "And while we're 'off topic,' car design and technology sadly has gone in the same direction. Excellent satire by BBC Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson: