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With access to the world now open to all with the touch of a button the floodgates are open, reducing the importance of any one photographer and reducing the importance of any one photograph. With more images being uploaded in a minute today than were taken during the entire 19th century the skilled and thoughtful photographer has become a quaint anachronism, leftover from an earlier age.
Key Words: photography, camera, social media, narcissism, viral media, sentient being, surveillance, blob, artificial intelligence, cyborg, Facebook, Instagram, selfie, simulacrum. Science fiction writers have long been fascinated with the idea of artificial intelligence and the dawn of sentient technology. In these scenarios humans fare badly.
Once computers become independent of their creators they soon realize that the biggest threat to humanity is the human race itself and that the world would be much better without homo-sapiens mucking things up. From A Space Odyssey to The Terminator to The Matrix , computers do their best to kill or subdue the offending bipedal hairless apes who somehow hang on through unpredictability and cunning.
The good news is that we aren't there yet. Siri isn't going to kill you, yet. The not so good news is that a venerated medium of visual representation that has contributed more than its fair share to changing the world has become free of its tether to learned practitioners and has become a self-perpetuating organism. That medium is photography. It has evolved into an organic-digital hybrid life form no longer dependent on photographers for its growth or existence. This is not to say that photographs will no longer be taken. They will most likely be taken in ever increasing numbers, outstripping the staggering volume we are currently struggling under.
The unpleasant truth photographers must contend with is that they will no longer be part of the equation. Humans with cameras will continue to take photographs, but they will no more be photographers than literate humans with pencil and paper can be called writers. Instead, the term operator is more appropriate. Operators are people who take pictures in accordance with the program of photography. They respond to aberrations in daily routines by dutifully pointing a camera at them and posting them to Facebook.
They fulfil social rituals by recording appropriate responses in socially sanctioned events and markers in one's passage through life. They also record violations of the social code and make one's transgressions available for public shaming. Photographers, on the other hand, do not follow social codes or programs when they make images. They understand the communicative powers of the medium by arranging symbols and signs in the frame, manipulating formal qualities for effect and have developed a certain mastery of their equipment to be able to intentionally create meaning. Operators have existed since Kodak introduced the point and shoot camera in with the tagline, 'You press the button, we do the rest.
The biggest change in photography wrought by the digital age has nothing to do with the camera itself or the plasticity of image manipulation. It's the ease of distribution and the loss of authority of the gatekeepers that are the really important changes. An oft quoted but un-cited statistic states that more photographs are taken today in just two minutes than were taken in the entire 19th century. With billions of smart phone users blissfully tapping away, that's going to be the visual equivalent of a sonnet every few minutes. The lack of expertise necessary to use these high quality and highly sophisticated image making and sharing devices creates the illusion of adequacy and a deluge of images that are all essentially the same, recreating an earlier image that the operator wishes to duplicate.
Selfies, cute pets, and people acting foolishly fill the dataverse in a self-perpetuating spiral. The lack of thought, the lack of effort negates individuality and visual contributions that can be attributed to a single person. We are faced with behaviour of a lower order; behaviour that is essentially a response to stimuli, not very different from reacting to something very hot or very cold.
The paradox of having a smart phone is that it feels like empowerment. And in many ways it is. But it simultaneously leads us into mindless time wasting behaviour that nullifies the individual that we are led to believe we have become through its purchase. Part of this blindness is due to the cult of the individual that is actively promoted in advanced western countries, especially the United States.
It denigrates our strong conformist tendencies and tries to separate us from animals such as sheep, ants and cows, which we look down on for their lack of uniqueness. What many of us mistake for originality is actually a kind of conformity in which we all express ourselves by choosing from a limited menu of options. The photographer, with a deeper understanding of the camera and the power of the image to manipulate viewers' understandings and interpretations of events, retains a higher degree of independence and control over his or her tool.
The operator, on the other hand, with less understanding and greater reliance on preformatted choices is more prone to be the manipulated side in the relationship. This has profound implications when one considers how social media not only encourages image creation but also influences it through a system of rewards in the form of iconographic validations.
Just how many images are created for the satisfaction of a virtual pat on the back is unknown, but certainly it compromises the operator's use of camera and distribution media as tools of empowerment. As one flies into almost any American city today the extent of the suburban sprawl of our car culture is hard to miss. From the vantage point of several thousand feet the curlicue layouts of housing developments begin to look like the trails of parasites in tree bark.
The identical homes surrounding their cul de sacs evoke the panopticon prison design. The snarls of highway traffic resemble ants streaming into their hill. Yet it is with promises of freedom and individuality that cars and homes are sold to consumers. So it is with smart phones and social media. Operators may think of themselves as individuals, but as they upload and share photos, 'like' their friends' posts and unknowingly feed the databases of security agencies and data miners they become part of a much larger entity.
Like a soldier with a gun that surrenders his or her individuality to become part of an army, operators unknowingly through participation in social media become a single pixel in an enormous cyborg camera; networked through social media into a giant inside out eyeball, a megapixel camera, seeing and recording everything on earth. This sheath of surveillance replaces the eye in the sky of the omniscient god concept.
There is no need for someone or thing to be actively watching us when we willingly report on ourselves. Our technology has tapped into our latent narcissistic desire for attention while we go about our business largely unaware. According to Sigmund Freud we enjoy a healthy period of narcissism as infants, during which, our every demand is met by all-powerful mothers and fathers, who dote upon, nurture and protect us.
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While we grow out of this phase on our journey towards independence we never forget it. Freud postulated that we even create gods and goddesses to fill the emotional void left by infantile perceptions of our parents.
Yet this stroking of our ego through 'likes' and smiley faces comes at a price. Attention from so-called friends and family also means surveillance by unknown entities with less than altruistic intents. This is a new generation of surveillance that differentiates itself from Foucault's panopticon model  in that it is not fear of a guard's gaze that prevents bad behaviour but a mask of friends and family that encourages it.
If 'Humans Need Not Apply,' Will All Our Jobs Disappear?
Deeper penetration into the mindset of an individual allows for a more profitable form of control through the offering of desirable commodities tailored to each person's self-declared interests. What will life inside the eyeball be like? With everyone on earth transformed into a single cyborg pixel of an enormous living camera, everyone must simultaneously become a subject as well; either their own or someone else's. A relationship of camera to subject ensues bringing to life at last Borges' mythic map that was the exact replica in size and detail of the territory it represented. Yet at the same time it won't be so much a facsimile as a hyperbole.
People don't like to make pictures that are truly descriptive of themselves or others. An element of flattery is usually at play, creating what Beaudrillard would call a second order simulation; one that distorts or perverts reality. Without photographers contributing new visual strategies to the image stream a feedback loop will ensue of operators recreating distortions of distortions until the photographs will no longer have any relation to the original image; a complete simulacrum. Susan Sontag once wrote that, 'Today everything exists to end in a photograph.
It used to be that we relied on photographers to record historical events, wars, fashion shows, humanitarian crises, propaganda, natural disasters and transgressions of justice. Mathew Brady, the great impresario of photographing the American Civil War brought 3-D carnage to the stereoscopes in drawing rooms across the country.
Jacob Riis showed us how the other half lives in the slums of New York, and Robert Capa got more than close enough on the beaches of Normandy in World War 2. But with the spread of operators to every inch of the planet with high enough quality equipment a shift has been under way for several years from professionals to the monkey with the typewriter approach to fulfil diverse organizations and consumers' visual needs.
In the Chicago Sun Times suddenly layed off its entire staff of 28 full time photographers and started training reporters in iPhone basics. Cars in all their forms are so much more than horses that using the name limits your thinking about what they can even do. Lets call self-driving cars what they really are:. Autos: the solution to the transport-objects-from-point-A-to-point-B problem. Traditional cars happen to be human sized to transport humans but tiny autos can work in wear houses and gigantic autos can work in pit mines.
Moving stuff around is who knows how many jobs but the transportation industry in the United States employs about three million people. The usual argument is that unions will prevent it. But history is filled with workers who fought technology that would replace them and the workers always loose. Economics always wins and there are huge incentives across wildly diverse industries to adopt autos.
Robots Need Not Apply
For many transportation companies, the humans are about a third of their total costs. That's just the straight salary costs. Humans sleeping in their long haul trucks costs time and money. Accidents cost money. Carelessness costs money. If you think insurance companies will be against it, guess what? Their perfect driver is one who pays their small premium but never gets into an accident.
The autos are coming and they're the first place where most people will really see the robots changing society. But there are many other places in the economy where the same thing is happening, just less visibly. It's easy to look at Autos and Baxters and think: technology has always gotten rid of low-skill jobs we don't want people doing anyway. They'll get more skilled and do better educated jobs -- like they've always done. Even ignoring the problem of pushing a hundred-million additional people through higher education, white-collar work is no safe haven either.
If your job is sitting in front of a screen and typing and clicking -- like maybe you're supposed to be doing right now -- the bots are coming for you too, buddy. Software bots are both intangible and way faster and cheaper than physical robots. Given that white collar workers are, from a companies perspective, both more expensive and more numerous -- the incentive to automate their work is greater than low skilled work. And that's just what automation engineers are for. These are skilled programmers whose entire job is to replace your job with a software bot.
You may think even the world's smartest automation engineer could never make a bot to do your job -- and you may be right -- but the cutting edge of programming isn't super-smart programmers writing bots it's super-smart programmers writing bots that teach themselves how to do things the programmer could never teach them to do. How that works is well beyond the scope of this video, but the bottom line is there are limited ways to show a bot a bunch of stuff to do, show the bot a bunch of correctly done stuff, and it can figure out how to do the job to be done.
Even with just a goal and no example of how to do it the bots can still learn. Take the stock market which, in many ways, is no longer a human endeavor. It's mostly bots that taught themselves to trade stocks, trading stocks with other bots that taught themselves. Again: it's not bots that are executing orders based on what their human controllers want, it's bots making the decisions of what to buy and sell on their own. As a result the floor of the New York Stock exchange isn't filled with traders doing their day jobs anymore, it's largely a TV set. So bots have learned the market and bots have learned to write.
If you've picked up a newspaper lately you've probably already read a story written by a bot. There are companies that are teaching bots to write anything: Sports stories, TPS reports, even say, those quarterly reports that you write at work. Paper work, decision making, writing -- a lot of human work falls into that category and the demand for human metal labor is these areas is on the way down.
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But surely the professions are safe from bots? When you think 'lawyer' it's easy to think of trials. But the bulk of lawyering is actually drafting legal documents predicting the likely outcome and impact of lawsuits, and something called 'discovery' which is where boxes of paperwork gets dumped on the lawyers and they need to find the pattern or the one out-of-place transaction among it all.
This can all be bot work. Discovery, in particular, is already not a human job in many firms. Not because there isn't paperwork to go through, there's more of it than ever, but because clever research bots sift through millions of emails and memos and accounts in hours not weeks -- crushing human researchers in terms of not just cost and time but, most importantly, accuracy.
Bots don't get sleeping reading through a million emails.
But that's the simple stuff: IBM has a bot named Watson: you may have seen him on TV destroy humans at Jeopardy — but that was just a fun side project for him. Watson's day-job is to be the best doctor in the world: to understand what people say in their own words and give back accurate diagnoses. And he's already doing that at Slone-Kettering, giving guidance on lung cancer treatments.
Human doctors are by no means perfect -- the frequency and severity of misdiagnosis are terrifying -- and human doctors are severely limited in dealing with a human's complicated medical history. Understanding every drug and every drug's interaction with every other drug is beyond the scope of human knowability. Especially when there are research robots whose whole job it is to test 1,s of new drugs at a time. Human doctors can only improve through their own experiences.
Doctor bots can learn from the experiences of every doctor bot. Can read the latest in medical research and keep track of everything that happens to all his patients world-wide and make correlations that would be impossible to find otherwise. Not all doctors will go away, but when doctor bots are comparable to humans and they're only as far away as your phone -- the need for general doctors will be less. But perhaps you're still not worried because you're a special creative snowflakes. Well guess what? You're not that special. Creativity may feel like magic, but it isn't. The brain is a complicated machine -- perhaps the most complicated machine in the whole universe -- but that hasn't stopped us from trying to simulate it.
There is this notion that just as mechanical muscles allowed us to move into thinking jobs that mechanical minds will allow us all to move into creative work. But even if we assume the human mind is magically creative -- it's not, but just for the sake of argument -- artistic creativity isn't what the majority of jobs depend on. The number of writers and poets and directors and actors and artist who actually make a living doing their work is a tiny, tiny portion of the labor force. And given that these are professions that are dependent on popularity they will always be a small part of the population.
Oh, by the way, this music in the background that your listening to? It was written by a bot. Her name is Emily Howel and she can write an infinite amount of new music all day for free. And people can't tell the difference between her and human composers when put to a blind test. Talking about artificial creativity gets weird fast -- what does that even mean? But it's nonetheless a developing field.
People used to think that playing chess was a uniquely creative human skill that machines could never do right up until they beat the best of us. And so it goes for all human talent. Right: this might have been a lot to take in, and you might want to reject it -- it's easy to be cynical of the endless, and idiotic, predictions of futures that never are. So that's why it's important to emphasize again this stuff isn't science fiction. The robots are here right now.
There is a terrifying amount of working automation in labs and wear houses that is proof of concept. There's little work a horse can do that do that pays for its housing and hay. And many bright, perfectly capable humans will find themselves the new horse: unemployable through no fault of their own. But if you still think new jobs will save us: here is one final point to consider.
The US census in tracked only a few kinds of jobs. Now there are hundreds of kinds of jobs, but the new ones are not a significant part of the labor force. Here's the list of jobs ranked by the number of people that perform them - it's a sobering list with the transportation industry at the top. Going down the list all this work existed in some form a hundred years ago and almost all of them are targets for automation.
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Only when we get to number 33 on the list is there finally something new. Don't that every barista and officer worker lose their job before things are a problem. Just what we've talked about today, the stuff that already works, can push us over that number pretty soon. And given that even our modern technological wonderland new kinds of work are not a significant portion of the economy, this is a big problem.