Photography

2 Cars, 5 Mobile Phones, and 38 Pairs of Underpants: On 10 Years of Consumption

“Enormous weight is attached to all the objects that Robinson Crusoe saves from the wrecked ship or makes with his own hands. I would say that the moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic”

Italo Calvino, Quickness, Six Memos for the Next Millennium [1]

For just over 10 years, from 2000 to 2011, I kept a public list of every consumer item that I bought. You can see the list on the website Shornbare.com, which I built in 1999, back in what seems like now the early days of the web.

My intentions for the website were hazy at the time but they were part of an urge to both examine and expose my life and in so doing to create a persona that, although related to me, also allowed some form of creative freedom; a blurring between documentary and fictional documentary. I never attempted to publicise the site in any way, apart from occasionally sending a link to someone who I thought might be interested – mainly work colleagues or friends – and there were no contact details. Instead I imagined someone stumbling across it accidently and attempting, from the lists and work recorded there, to figure out the kind of person behind it all. And I include myself in that category of people that accidently stumbled across the site.

The examining and exposing of my life had a kind of moral purpose as well. On the one hand I felt that I’d got into a cycle of consuming too much, but on the other I was intrigued about what that consumption did for me in terms of my activity and life more generally. I conceptualised my consumption as input; a necessary part of transforming my life into new things of value, and I imagined my life as a machine, fuelled by the things I bought and finely-tuned in operation to produce energy, and motion, and forward travel. That’s easy to express for something like music, for example, where one can beat a path between what one listens to and what one produces. It’s not so clear for something like a pair of jeans or a mobile phone. What I was also interested in, of course, was whether these things of value were, in fact, valuable. That is to say, was all the consumption worth it? Was I a stuttering machine rather than a finely-tuned one? A machine with borderline affluenza [2].

I was also interested in another kind of life, and that was the life that ‘things’ have, from their birth (into my life) through to their death (thrown away, lost, given away, or sold). The period in between birth and death, during which the thing becomes part of your life, spawned a series of sub-questions; how often are useful things used? how do things become valuable things? It has always struck me that by far the largest proportion of a thing’s life is spent not being actively used. Chairs just mainly abide, waiting for someone to come along and sit on them; a kettle waits to be called into brief, powerful, service before being left neglected on the kitchen counter-top again. I set out wanting to document all the lives of all the things that came into my life; to map the magnetism and magic in Calvino’s terms.

So this was an inquiry both into the lives of inanimate things, but also into how those lives affected my life. These concerns, of cause and effect, were, and still are, echoed in my professional research where I’ve always been interested in how the intentions of a designer, in forming a design, affect the lives of those who go on to use the design and who may know nothing of the designer and her intentions.

What I decided I needed was to make myself objective both to other people, who could judge for themselves what it all meant, but also to myself, to allow me to experience myself analytically, as someone separate from me; someone other. I needed to create a distance between myself as a consuming machine and myself as a functioning person. Essentially to be able to ask myself the existential question: who is this person and how do the things around them allow them to exist?

So this is what I found.

Between November 2000 and January 2012 I bought and listed 878 things.

What counts as a thing?

Initially, I thought of the list as being solely about products – coffee machines, iPods, telephones, etc. – but that was way too narrow a definition – lots of meaningful stuff like clothes, cars, houses, and bicycles had to be there. Fairly early on I decided to set a minimum price, something like £4, with anything costing less than that, like light bulbs, not making the list. There was no upper limit.

Books, music, and films it seemed to me to belong to a different category of thing – more like delivery mechanisms for changing content – and that play a slightly different, perhaps more cerebral, role in life. I listed those separately on my website [3] as well as adding one photo a month from all those I was taking [4].

Then there are odd things that crop up. What about gifts? I decided they didn’t count, either things given to me, since I had not chosen them as something I needed, or things that I’d given to others which, although in a sense needed by me, didn’t play an active part in my own life other than the initial giving. What about things that were bought for me at work, like an Apple laptop?  I decided not to list these, although I used them outside of my working life they were mainly used for work activity.  And things that deplete – like aftershave or paint? I decided they could make the list as long as there was potential for them to be loved, though throwing away an empty bottle of aftershave or tin of paint is obviously different from throwing away a desk lamp that you no longer want. But that discounted, for example, petrol or washing powder. It seems to me to be the brand (Shell, Persil, Heinz) that is doing the sole work there to inveigle the raw stuff into your affections. Then there is software – what to do about that? I started off putting it down, but it just didn’t feel right, and when Apps came along with smart phones, they didn’t seem right as ‘things’ either. So they didn’t get listed.

Then there were things that were parts of other things, usually as replacement or routine maintenance; bike and car tyres for example, which I listed. I also listed things that functioned as raw material for other things, like wooden planks for example. And there were overlaps between types of things, mainly between sports clothing and clothing, for example, though they seem to me to be doing slightly different things.

There were times when I forgot to list things for one reason or another, or where inconsistency crept in over the years. But hey, I’m not claiming this as science, I just wanted to get a better understanding of the shape of my life and its relation to stuff.

So, 878 things in just over 10 years.

That number was smaller than I was expecting. Worked through as one thing every four days, though, it seems like a lot. The paradox is right there. In large numbers there is only quantity; in small numbers there is quality. In amongst these things were 2 cars (both German), 4 cameras, 5 mobile phones, 3 computers, 2 houses, and 5 fountain pens.

Most of the 878 things were items of clothing – 30% of them in fact, or one item of clothing every 14 days. Over those ten years I bought 24 pairs of jeans, 19 pairs of shoes, 30 T-shirts, 55 pairs of socks and 38 pairs of underpants.

250 of the items, or just less than 30%, were sports related, although 129, just over half of those sport things, were items of clothing. 130 things related to cycling, 27 to golf, 27 to squash, 19 to running, and 15 to swimming. And that gives a pretty good reading of my sporting life in those 10 years – cycling and running throughout, giving up squash with an arthritic big toe, and taking up golf (there is a nice symmetry to that number 27). 20 bike tyres does seem kind of excessive though.

198 things related to the house, either things to situate within the house or to use for decorating and arrangement. And then, of course, there are the two houses themselves. Two houses and two cars in 10 years seems pretty modest to me.

Of the remaining things 20 of them (2%) relate to playing music in some form or other – pianos, effects, recording devices, software; and 44 (5%) are what I called personal (6 bottles of aftershave, though I’m sure I’ve bought more, 5 fountain pens, and 3 pairs of sunglasses).

So that’s the stuff; just over 10 years collapsed into 5 paragraphs. What’s happened to it?

Of those 878 items I no longer have 593 of them. Of the things that have gone I have given away 127 (mainly items of clothing to charity shops), I’ve lost 17 things, sold 96, had 5 things stolen – including Stumpy, a much-loved mountain bike – and thrown away 322 things. That’s right, 322 (or 37%) of items that I’ve had in the last 10 years have gone in the bin. A few will have been things that were simply used up, but not many.

The good news is I still have 285 of the 878 things I bought!

And some of them I’ve kept for a long time. Of 67 things I bought in 2001, 14 years ago, I still have 16 – almost 25% of them, 5 of which I consider highly valued. Three of those highly valued things relate to cycle touring – panniers and a handlebar pack – one is Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer (below) that always finds a prominent position in the places I’ve lived, and the final thing is a Cambridge hi-fi amplifier, still pumping out the tunes, although recently developing a frustrating buzz (perhaps time for a new one?).

Philippe Starck Lemon Squeezer, bought in 20xx

Philippe Starck Lemon Squeezer, an item I value highly, bought in 2001.

At the other end of the scale, of the 87 things I bought in 2011, 4 years ago, I still have 56 (65%), 25 of which are ‘high value’ items. 18 of those things are items of clothing, 5 are things relating to cycling, and the remaining 2 are things relating to golf.

The oldest thing in my list that I still have (and value highly) is an Ikea dining table (below), solid and simple, bought in 2000.

An Ikea table

The oldest ‘high value’ thing in my list – an Ikea table, bought in 2000.

Really it is the things that I’ve rated as ‘high value’ that I’m interested in and that, on the surface, hold the key to uncovering how things have become meaningful in my life. ‘High value’ is just a subjective measure; a feeling that, when I read the name of the thing on a list, I like the thing. It conjures up its image, it makes me smile, I can call it to mind easily, and re-experience the pleasure and quality the thing gave me in its use.

So of the 878 original things, I’ve rated 161 of them (18%), as having high value. The largest proportion of these things are 59 items of clothing closely followed by 51 items of sport, 23 ‘house’ items, and 17 electronic items.

If I look down the list of high value items 25 of them I have used in the last month, 6 I have used today, and I am currently using 3 – my Wacom graphics tablet (13 years old), my Bosch washing machine (12 years old), and my Carhartt leather belt (4 years old).

Wacom Graphics Tablet, a high value thing, bought in 20xx

Wacom Graphics Tablet, an item I consider as ‘high value’ and that I am using at this moment,  bought in 2002.

That’s it! The raw stats about all the things I’ve bought and used over a 10 year period. I can’t help feeling disappointed – is 18% all I have to show in terms of value in 10 years?

Where I failed was in fully documenting the life of each thing. At the beginning it seemed simple enough, recording the narrative arc of a thing’s life. The expectations at birth, the early difficulties, the later years of declining use and usefulness. The inevitable end. Of those 878 possible stories I only actually recorded 24 of these and I realise now that this mainly happened when something out of a normal narrative happened – the product failed or broke (a Canondale mountain bike), or I lost it (a Nokia 6510 mobile phone, a Sony portable CD player), or I got it repaired or replaced (a Parker fountain pen). Most of the stuff just abided with me for a length of time and then got thrown away; that’s the normal narrative, hardly worth recording.

I did notice that there were clusters of things that supported certain activities. Golf clubs, bags, shoes, shirts, and trousers for golf; computers, software, keyboards, mixers, and cables for music recording. It wasn’t necessarily the things in themselves that I valued but their combination, providing a scaffold for entertainment, enjoyment and a feeling of progress and development somehow. My investment in these things was also an investment in a certain activity, though I realised after a while that it is a fine balance; the need to have the thing that is smaller, operates faster, is more responsive and efficient can quickly become the focus of your activity rather than the activity itself. Buying a new mountain bike might make big improvements to comfort and performance but it is still the feeling of being out in the middle of the countryside and turning the pedals that I value most.

Unexpectedly, the clothes category contains the highest number of ‘high value’ items. Clothes, it seems to me, become you in a way that other things don’t. They lie close to your skin, they take on your scent, they construct and project your identity – in colour, in form, in detail – and provide a level of comfort and reassurance; a structure to exist in. Clothes adapt themselves to us and they, as we, change through the years, both as fashion changes, but also through continual cleaning. Jeans get looser, T-shirts fade, underpants slowly grow bigger. You grow into them as much as they grow into you; it’s a symbiotic relationship. One thing I have learned is that wear can be a source of value; scratches that accumulate on a plate or surface, marks and dents that record events and interactions (Figure 4). Things can capture a shared history, so no wonder clothes set-off positive memories.

Three imperfect things: (left) laptop dropped at airport x-ray machine, (middle) Phillipe Starck Lemon Squeezer, leg broken and then repaired, (right) acoustic guitar scraped.

Figure 4. Three imperfect things: (left) An Apple MacBook Air dropped at Biarritz airport x-ray machine, (middle) Phillipe Starck Lemon Squeezer, leg broken and then repaired, (right) Simon & Patrick acoustic guitar banged against furniture.

Sports are the next largest proportion of highest value items and (apart from the sports clothes, see above) represent the possibility of a Heideggerian sense of connection; the piece of sports equipment becomes invisible to your consciousness in becoming part of the wholeness of your performance. When you connect with a squash ball, tennis ball, golf ball so well that it seems like something metaphysical happens; when you flow down a hill on a bike as if floating on air. Sports equipment is intimately involved in your triumphs (small though they sometimes are) and also your failures (large though they sometimes appear).

That description of high value items might be applied to other products too, though less often. When I use my iPhone, or drive a car, or play guitar it sometimes feels like me and the thing are thinking together. I just don’t get that with a printer, or a kettle, or a light; those things mainly just function, though obviously they have to fit the environment and get along with the other things.

So where things work the best is when their story becomes my story, when our narratives combine even just for a short time. That’s when the magnetism and magic works with me in a way that I don’t even notice; the supporting cast to my star-of-the-show. Actually, reviewing my list in its entirety I am amazed by the number of things that I can remember quite distinctly, whether I’ve valued them or not. I often remember where I bought a thing, though not usually where I parted with it. Things provoke memories and recall experiences; the more the thing becomes you, the more intense and emotional that memory is likely to be. Like music, things take you back, things help you out, but they don’t solve the vast majority of your problems.

So what kind of machine am I? I think a not too efficient one, though there have been moments of purring performance. It seems I have far more input than output [4]. I also have a nagging feeling that if I had input less then I would have output more; that I haven’t made best use of the machine or even misunderstood its basic operation. I can’t claim to dislike the person whose life I have examined through this inquiry, but I can’t claim any love either. The things, although constituting a significant part of life, don’t, in the final analysis, really matter that much.

The reason I don’t buy home insurance is that I hope that one day I’ll come home and all my things will be gone. Then I’ll have a blank sheet, to start all over again.

[1] Italo Calvino (1984) Quickness in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Harvard University Press.

[2] Oliver James (2007) Affluenza, Vermilion.

[3] Links to my various lists (inputs) on Shornbare.com are here: 15 years of books, 14 years of music, 15 years of films

[4] Links to my various outputs on Shornbare.com are here: 10 years of one photo a month, other stuff

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Unreal Realism #2: More Stories from Postcards (and some from Google Street View too)

Here are the results of combining a couple of imaging and imagination techniques I’ve developed in two blog posts. The first are my continuing close-up studies of ‘normal’ behavior taking place in the background of postcards. The second is the use of Google street view to capture distinct moments in time. Here are two examples. The first is of Tintagel in Cornwall (sent in 1959). This is the original postcard:

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

In the bottom left frame of the postcard is a picture of Fore Street and within it, two men walking side by side – click on the image to see a close up. Here are the two men taken with a macro lens attached to an iPhone 5:

IMG_4995

Close up of Fore Street, Tintagel, showing two men walking together. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

The rendering of the image with the shallow depth of field captures beautifully the historic ‘feel’ of the scene. It could easily be a carefully composed photo taken by a local photographer. At first sight I thought the two men were wearing overalls – perhaps walking home from working at a local tin mine, deep in conversation. Closer inspection reveals both in suits, however, so the interpretation of the conversation shifts to one of business being discussed (perhaps about the local tin mine?). They look like they are walking home, to lunch or dinner, relaxed in each other’s company.

It’s an interesting experiment comparing these images with modern day ones made from Google street view. In some ways the two processes – of making postcards and of producing street view images – are similar. The people that figure in the background are equally unaware that they are being captured, and each image is a public one – sent through the post or digitally referenced.

Here is the 2011 Street View image that most closely follows the frame of the original Fore Street image:

Google Street View screenshot of Fore Street Tintagel, 2011.

Google Street View screenshot showing Fore Street, Tintagel, Cornwall 2011.

The town appears to have changed very little over the intervening years. The Hotels, both to the left and to the right in the original postcard image, are no longer hotels; pavements have been added, telegraph poles removed, and of course the cars are modern. But the rhythm of the built form; the mullioned windows, bay fronts, and roof angles – the essential structure of the place – remains.

Here is a close up of the people in that image:

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing people in Fore Street, Tintagel.

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing the people bottom left in the image above.

The people, pixelated by the digital zoom and anonymised algorithmically by Google, are distinct only in their forward movement; some look like holiday-makers though there is a man in a dark jacket who looks purposeful and businesslike, a distant echo of the two side-by-side men in suits.  He appears as a leader, the others following him either to be saved or led to their doom.

The second example is of Rye, in East Sussex (circa 1970). Here is the original postcard:

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex.  The bottom right frame shows East Street.

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex. The bottom right frame shows East Street (circa 1970).

In the bottom right frame is a photo of East Street, the Union Inn prominent and with three people in the scene. Here is the close up of them:

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

In contrast to the Tintagel scene the shallow depth of field in the macro-shot doesn’t reveal a ‘photo-within-a-photo-within-a-postcard’ but a scene made impressionistic by revealing the pattern of colour making up a half-tone print. Outside of the area of focus the photo looks normal, but it takes on a painterly quality as the focus sharpens, abstracting the two figures in almost pointillist fashion, patterning the women’s skirt in the foreground.

The scene shows a couple walking towards the camera, while a younger man with teddy-boy hair and turned up trousers exits a door behind them. The couple have baggage with them. The woman holds a red handbag in her left hand while dragging a suitcase. The man, seemingly dressed in military fatigues, holds a bag in his left had while gesturing with his right. Perhaps they are on their way to the station after a weekend away – did it go well? It’s difficult to tell, though there is a feeling of slight disconnection or unfamiliarity between them – the man and the woman don’t quite fit as a couple.

Here is the 2009 Google Street View version of East Street in Rye:

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

As with Tintagel the built form is largely unchanged. The Union Inn (sign just out of view) is still functioning and really the only difference is that an (ironic) ‘historic’ streetlamp and a few bollards have been added. The photo, with dynamic digital artefacts bottom left, also reveals a striking similarity in the people that are captured; a couple walk up the street while a person exits from the same doorway as before (the building now revealed as a dental surgery). The close up is shown here:

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

This time the man of the couple looks up at the camera (the Google car is a strange beast to behold) while arm-in-arm with his partner who carries a handbag. The woman exiting the dentist does so carefully, waiting on the top step before venturing further, perhaps slightly in pain from the dentist’s poking around; recalling where to go next.

There is a stability revealed in these various fragments and stories, of slow-changing environments with familiar rhythms and uses, and of age-old behaviours, interactions, and movements. The public facing camera that ostensibly documents and replicates place reveals all kinds of other things about the daily lives of people who populate those places. One only has to look with a magnifying glass (or digital zoom) to find that, in many English towns, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Gasoline Stations: Signifiers of Future’s Past

The artist Ed Ruscha loves a Gas Station. From Arizona to Oklahoma to Texas to LA, Ed recorded twenty six of them in his book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations (to go with Thirty Four Parking Lots). These roadside pavilions stand with their reassuring brand out front, beckoning to the long distance motorist – modern forms in the face of wild nature – we’re here to keep you going, they say, why don’t you stop by?

Ruscha explains why he is interested in the gas station as a form:

“I would look at a building and disregard the purpose of that building (in this case a commercial outlet to sell gasoline).  I was really more interested in this crazy little design that was repeated by all the gas companies to make stations with an overhang to create shade for their customers.  It seemed to me a very beautiful statement.”[1]

Gas in the tank keeps the world economy going too and Standard Oil, shown in one of Ruscha’s Gasoline Station photos below, was once the world’s largest corporation.

Ed Ruscha Gas Station Photo

Ruscha takes this image and stylises it in the drawing below (and subsequent painting), simplifying the form and accentuating the perspective so the viewer feels smaller and the building more dynamic; maybe even hubristic.

Ed Ruscha Gas Station Drawing

Ruscha likens the image he produced to railroad tracks, the camera down low:

“So [the train] appeared as though it was coming from nowhere, from a little point in the distance, to suddenly filling your total range of vision.  In a sense, that’s what the Standard gas station is doing.  It’s super drama.”

The gas station becomes abstract and generic too – the shop is blanked out to foreground the four pumps and the ‘Standard’ sign. We could be anywhere in America now, but it is a vision, or reflection, of modernity – in architecture, in service, and in the victory of the automobile and mobility. The artistic statement, of course, is ambiguous; the celebration, if it is there at all, carries undercurrents; of Hopper-like loneliness and alienation, of urban fragility, of corporate dominance, of Hollywood glamour.

Perhaps inspired by Ruscha’s inspiration (or the Hollywood glamour) I too have become a connoisseur of gas stations – the US and the UK variety – particularly gas stations that have closed down, leaving Ruscha-like abstractions of themselves; frozen at a time when the petroleum ran out (at least for the locality).

I came across a good example recently in West Sussex, an ex-Esso petrol station with the pumps still intact. Esso, coincidently, were one of the off-shoots of Standard Oil when it was broken up for being a monopoly – the S and O of Standard Oil forming the phonetic Esso.

Esso Garage

This time though, rather than a sense of modern design’s triumph over nature, there was a sense of nature beginning to re-take control. The spiders’ webs on the pump handles and weeds beginning to push through the concrete a testament to the first signs of ruin.

Petrol Pump

There was an eerie, pre-apocalyptic feel to the place, like the oil had run out not just in the locality, but in the rest of the country too, the pumps stuck at a time when unleaded cost 98.9 pence per litre.  Less super drama, more like the end of the road.

Petrol pump reading

Today it is Apple who are the world’s largest company, with Google not too far behind. Tech companies have overtaken the oil giants but they need energy to function and fossil fuels are falling out of fashion. In 20 years there may be many more gas stations in ruins – signifiers, not of progress and modernity, as in the 1962 of Ruscha, but relics of a past when we took and took and took from the earth until there was no more.

 

[1] Wolf, S. (2004) Ed Ruscha and Photography, Whitney Museum of American Art.

[2] Ibid.

Unreal Realism: The Stories in Postcards

Two interests collided the other day: continuing photographic experimentation and postcard collecting. I recently bought a mini-magnetic-macro lens for my iPhone (nowadays the only camera I carry with me) and have been rediscovering the worlds revealed by extreme close up. Buying the postcard shown below, of Selfridges department store in Oxford Street, London circa 1970, and taking close up photos with the macro lens, revealed some nice aesthetic effects along with reflections on suddenly examined life.

Oxford Street

The postcard is of Oxford Street I’m guessing circa 1970 and shows a classic red bus / black cab shot of London outside the famous Selfridges department store.

IMG_4301

The first macro photo is from the bottom left of the Postcard.

IMG_4300

The second macro photo is from the bottom right of the Postcard.

The image samples remind me of a sophisticated computer-generated model for a new piece of urban design (see past posts on representation); not quite real, not quite not-real; unreal realism you might call it.

The narrow depth of field of the lens introduces a realistic motion that isn’t there in the postcard, while the people caught in focus move centre-stage. What is that old man thinking as he crosses the road? He looks so… sad, reflective and calm amongst the bustle of traffic and people. Perhaps he has just lost his job, or wife? or maybe he is just walking to work. Perhaps he knows the women in the second image, just about to cross the road, with her bags?  Perhaps she is his wife, or daughter, or the women next door that he often catches himself thinking about.

A Design Assignment (Part 2)

The world is running out of resources.  We are draining nature of the things that will keep us going. Somehow we can’t help ourselves.  This is the context for your next design assignment.  Design an object that represents the futility of our struggle to keep a lid on climate change.  The object should complement the natural world around, but clearly stand out from it as well.  It should combine soft and spiky elements within a rhythmic, multi-coloured structure as if excreted on to this earth by an alien life-force.

You have two days to complete the assignment.  On day 1 you should look at the world around you, and on day 2 you should shut your eyes and listen to the world around you.  During the last half hour of day 2 you should produce a form which will represent 100% of the total marks available for this assignment.  A good mark will be obtained for a form that properly represents despair.

A Design Assignment (Part 2)

A Design Assignment

Design a sequence of rectangular surfaces, to fit a grid structure and concrete floor, using found materials like corrugated iron and plywood.  Your design should use a distinct proportional system, primarily with horizontal and vertical elements, but belie that proportional system with an edgy, broken feel. You should provide a feeling of stability and time passing, but also include hints of menace and decay.  Your design should suggest a series of unnameable events having occurred through direct manipulation of the surface.

A good grade will be obtained for designs that present the feeling of the world being held together, but only just.  Marks will be deducted for projects that have seemingly been thrown together in under 20 years.

Image

Algorithmic Google

Putting together an expression of interest document for Brighton to host the 2016 Design Research Society Biennial conference I naturally Googled for a few images of Brighton, mainly for inspiration but perhaps to add (with, ahem, appropriate permissions) to my document.  One of the things I was looking for was a decent photo of the Brighton University Grand Parade Annex building, completed in 1969 and evaluated by Niklaus Pevsner in his Buildings of England series on East Sussex as:

“one of Brighton’s better postwar buildings and remarkably considerate to its site.  Concave front following the curve of Grand Parade with glazed ground floor set behind pilotis.  Two bands of fenestration above, articulated in a rhythm which reflects the width of the Regency terraced frontages which follow”.

The search I asked Google for was ‘Grand Parade, Brighton’.  I clicked on the image link to see what I had.  The photo below is what grabbed my attention, and that forced me down a route of mild diversion.

Richmond Place from St Peter's Church

Photo showing Richmond Place and Grand Parade, Brighton, from St Peter’s Church

The image is of a black and white postcard, from around 1930, and which shows an aerial view of the area of Brighton near where the Grand Parade building is now located (top right). The hand-written caption suggests that this is a view from an aeroplane and of Grand Parade, but once you know that St Peter’s church tower stands about where the photo is taken from it’s clear that this wasn’t taken from a (scarily low) aeroplane and isn’t really of Grand Parade.  The camera looks down on Richmond Place, behind which is dense Victorian housing. Tramcars make their way along the road, past shops with awnings pulled down on outside displays.

The curve of the road and urban division between Victoria Gardens on the right, and buildings on the left is still preserved today, though the streetlight in the middle of the road is gone. Most of the buildings that line Richmond Place still stand, as do some of the houses in the background but many have been demolished.  The ones in far-view to the left of Victoria Gardens as we look have given way to new office space. Car parks, a covered market, a police station, a dole office, the law courts, and the American Express headquarters now account for the other demolitions on the rising slope behind.

The postcard invited a visual comparison between past and present, ideally from the same position. Once again I turned to Google, but looking down the previous search I couldn’t find anything similar. Google now does an image search, where you can search for an image with an image, and I figured with the structure of the urban environment similar between past and present, an image search might throw up a modern version.

All the search results were in black and white of course, that’s the most obvious thing about the original, and something I’d forgotten to take account of. The image below was the number one returned image.

Holocaust

The number one item returned by Google when searching for an image with the image above.

The image shows a photograph, apparently from the holocaust, of about 50 women, most dressed in the ‘stripped pyjama’ concentration camp uniform, though around 10 are nuns, dressed in habits. The women are funneled between what looks like barbed-wire fences left and right.  Perhaps they are in an open train carriage? There is no uniformity in the attention of the women standing, suggesting that this might be a photograph taken from a film.  Some look sideways, some to camera, others backwards.  They seem to be going somewhere, but either going there very slowly or stopped altogether. There is enough blur in the far background to suggest that the image might have been digitally contrived or altered, but in most respects it appears convincing.  The question is, why might Google consider it is anything like the first image above?

Once one has read William Mitchell’s excellent book The Reconfigured Eye one tends to think of digital images slightly differently. As collections of optimised pixels, graded and toned, or as scripted algorithms that allow a computing device to ‘make’ an image.  One tends to think less of image content, and more of the patterns of pixels; about what a computing device can technically assume about an image in recomposing it to a level where you won’t notice the bits that are missed off or averaged out.  If one was to average out the greyscale of both images into one uniform tone – and that involves taking the writing on the postcard into account, something that we tend to ‘see through’ as content – the two images might be similar, might even be exact copies of one another in terms of a block of grey. But it seems unlikely, the overall tone appears different to my eyes; very slightly brown in the top image and very slightly green/blue in the bottom image.

What seems more likely – discounting any conspiracy theory – is that the holocaust image is simply one that is, or has been, very popular in search terms.  Google is saying to me: have a look at this one, which a lot of other people have clicked on, you might find it is similar to your other one. And perhaps a lot of people do, like me, click on this image in disbelief (and perhaps horror), that it could be anything like the image that they are searching for. For Google though, that click means that it has got it right.  Your click means that you think it is like the image you are searching for. So next time someone searches for a similar black and white image, Google can be reasonably sure that the concentration camp image might stand a good chance of being like it. In fact it stands a good chance of being like quite a few black and white images. In Google’s mind all images might all lead back, or forwards, to the holocaust.

Which might turn out to be a very sophisticated understanding of the human condition. We think we’re searching for something, but what we’re really searching for is something else; something unconscious. For other people’s misfortune perhaps. If Google really is learning, as Daniel Soar suggests, then it is either learning pretty damn quickly or it needs to search a dictionary to find a definition of what learning is.