How photographs became temporary and the spoken word became permanent

Take a picture. Compose it. Light it. Count down. Say cheese. Snap the shutter. Save the picture for ever.

Ever since the invention of the Kodak camera and the Brownie camera 100 years ago taking photographs has been an activity intended to preserve memories for posterity. Photographs were precious: The first material things saved in a house fire.

As photography moved to the digital age the strong affection for family photo albums was mimicked by digital albums designed to look like the familiar textured, physical, tangible albums of yesteryear.

Fast forward to one of the biggest Silicon Valley deals of 2012. Instagram was bought by Facebook for $1bn took after it reimagined posterity by enabling photographers to socialize photos that were filtered to look dated …even light-damaged, under-exposed, or patchily lit. Consumers loved it. Users numbers swelled. And so did the price tag.

At the same time, in the old fashioned world of real physical things, hip companies like Lomography arrived on the scene providing the novelty of physical analogue cameras that used film and were incapable of making phone calls or sending emails. Naturally these cameras look retro because it’s posterity and nostalgia that we associate with photography.

Lomography is successful. But it didn’t sell for $1bn.

Faking posterity is optional. The real story is that the act of picture taking and picture sharing has become preferable to writing or talking. And that’s led us somewhere unexpected.

We have began using photography not for preserving memories but to talk. I am HERE. I am here with THIS person. Do you LIKE these shoes? This is the WEATHER right now.

So now, not only is taking and sharing photographs easy, but we have a slew of new reasons to do it.

As a consequence, most of us carry more photographs on our phone than we can find time to edit or even review.

If we take more pictures than we can review and contemplate then why do we do it? It must mean our behavior has changed. After all it recognises that photographs are not precious; they have become mulch, more disposable than cheap party cameras.

Snapchat, a 2011 start up, realized that something unthinkable only a few years ago. People don’t want to save all their pictures. Pictures are communication. They are ephemeral. They are like the words we speak. Let them evaporate on the wind as soon as the words are communicated.

The USP of this start up company is that the photographs you share are guaranteed to vanish.

When you send a photograph to someone with Snapchat you define how long it will last on that person’s phone. Five seconds, five minutes… and then it disappears. Gone forever. It no longer exists. Not on the Snapchat servers. Not on your friend’s phone.

This is photography as the spoken word. “Listen carefully because I will only say it once” has become “Look carefully because you will only see this once.”

It’s as if what once seemed the strange physical merger of the camera and the mobile phone has forced the trans-substantiation of the two products: phone conversations become fixed and verifiable, photographs become… just word of mouth.

The result of this approach is no more photo-mulch. Sure important photos will be shared for posterity. Even the family album. But the rest will come and go. And be gone. For ever.

Disagree? Fine. But 50 million photos per day are sent and deleted forever by Snapchat’s servers.

The numbers don’t lie, the point of photography is changing: The camera lens is replacing the microphone as a conversation medium.

Hot on the heels of this paradigm shift, the next convention to be turned on its head will be the spoken word. Once we knew that the spoken word vanished as fast as a Snapchat photo.

But the technology exists to enable all spoken conversations to be routinely recored, stored and searched …just like an old photo album.

Those small oscillations of air molecules made by vibrating the air passing out of our lungs and past our vocal chords are thoughts made real. The spoken word is our most natural and nuanced form of communication. Unlike, say photography.

Perversely, in a world where all communication is stored forever on huge servers owned by google, twitter, facebook, your company, or your email provider the one form of communication form that died faster than a mayfly was your most human. Your spoken word. And this made it the wild west of promises and information.

The spoken word is deniable. Just ask Andrew Mitchell, the former government chief whip, who denied he ever called the policemen at No.10 Downing Street plebs or morons. No-one knew whether he really did say these things. Not even after the alleged transcript of the conversation was leaked.

But this is about to change. Just as photographs will become ephemeral so the spoken word is becoming permanent

Within years we will find that every word we utter in a phone call will be automatically recorded. You won’t think twice. It sounds odd but …watch. And listen.

The technology now exists to enable everyone to store every conversation they ever have. Whether it’s a skype conference call, a mobile call to your bank or a landline call at xmas to your distant relatives the phone call will be preserved and made permanent.

You can be sure that most of your conversations are not ones you ever want to bother hearing again. But some are. The promise made by your bank when it sold you a no-strings loan, the legal gobbledegook advice from your lawyer or doctor, the joke told by your six year old nephew…

While businesses have used call recording for a long time, the consumer hasn’t. But technology will change behaviour as surely as it changed the behaviour of all the photographers in the world.

And the key change here, unlike photography, is Search. For while you can scan through hundreds of digital photos pretty quickly you can’t do the same with recordings of phone calls.

Until now. In 2012 ARGOsearch released a conversation search engine. Now, something once preserved for the likes of GCHQ is available to everyone. Not only does it let everyone record every phone call they make but it allows them to instantly search the words that were spoken.

Which means you can ignore the conversation mulch, just like you ignore the photo-mulch. Technologies such as ARGOsearch, and there will be others soon enough, allow you to search through every conversation you ever had in order to find the one that includes the words: “santa christmas list present” or “no strings loan cancel anytime”.

And you can do it in an instant. From your phone. And even share the recordings.

Yes it raises all sorts of issues – moral, legal, behavioural.

But now that the technology exists and is out there would you want to take the bet that it won’t eventually become standard. Would you have bet that revolutions and careers will be made using a 140 character form of communication called Twitter or that a college social network like The Facebook would take over the world or that all CVs would become public on a site like LinkedIn.

The spoken word will become more permanent than photographs. And photographs will become as evanescent as the spoken word. That’s the strange place technology will take us over the next 12 months,

It’s as if what once seemed the strange physical merger of the camera and the mobile phone has forced the trans-substantiation of the two products: phone conversations become fixed and verifiable, photographs become… just word of mouth.


[first published in The Huffington Post]