Photography and Its Epic Significance

My link to my family past is a photograph taken in dusty, desolate West Texas, the one in which my grandmother on my father’s side is seated upfront in a child’s chair. She looks to be about 5 years old, which would date the image as 1920. Behind her are her mother and father, with sisters and stepsisters to the right.

And behind them stands two tottering old men, my great-great-grandfathers, both war veterans of the Civil War. They are each wearing medals from that horrible waste of a conflict. Those medals were all they had to show for the blood and horror. Their pensions never came through, as I know from innumerable letters I’ve seen in the archives. There are no images of them in their youth. The technology was around, but too expensive to be used profligately.

Across the back row are three young men with funny flat hats. They are a bit aloof from the scene, too cool for school and wondering why they should have to waste their time in this pose with all these old folks who don’t understand them and young kids who are not old enough to drive. Photography was yesterday’s technology; driving defined their generation.

That was the point of the hats: The signaled the Driving Generation. They would let the past eat their dust. There were no driver’s licenses, inspections or even license tags in Texas in those days. The last great transportation upgrade had been the railroad. The commercialization of the automobile put the private car of a mini-railroad in the control of every member of the bourgeoisie. The middle class could now travel like the Gilded Age tycoons 40 years earlier.

That’s progress. They believed in it.

What a fuss they all made over this photography session! They must have planned all day. Or maybe for weeks. And who was the guy who took the picture? There was no photography shop in town. He must have been a traveling photo merchant of some sort. I wonder how much this private setting cost? It must have been pretty expensive, which is why three generations had to cram into one single shot. Even at this date, vanity shots of individuals must have been for the very wealthy only.

The first permanent photograph — in the whole history of humanity — had been taken only 94 years earlier. This was incredible progress, given that such a thing had never before been available. To capture an image from the cave man days all the way to 1826 used the same technology — it had to be drawn. Whether on cave walls or canvas, painters documented their surroundings. Everything we know about the visual reality before 1826 came through their subjective interpretations.

(It’s remarkable to think of all the inventions that came about in the 1820s: the electromagnet, the telegraph, the match, photography, braille.)

Fast forward. Sometime in the last 10 years, I was able to own a phone without wires that I could carry in my pocket. Today, this phone has mutated into a camera. And this camera can also check my blood pressure, see live stock reports, be used to play Scrabble with people around the world, reveal the temperature of every spot on the globe, navigate me anywhere and provide access to the world’s largest encyclopedia.

This camera/phone also provides video, the Jetsons world gizmo of childhood dreams. And this video can stream live action of anything I see. This live video can be broadcast around the world for anyone to watch simultaneously from a single link, through innumerable services online, most of which are offered for free. Or I can take a single picture and have it automatically edited and improved and then post that to a site that interfaces with a social media site on which almost one-seventh of the world’s population chronicles daily life.

Several years ago, all the once-great great manufacturers of film provided the final confirmation that the new age had arrived. They discontinued the marketing of what was now hopelessly old fashioned. What was revolutionary in 1826 and still amazing in 1920 is an antique today.

At every stage in technological development, consumers might have vaguely hoped for the next iteration of something, but precisely what would come next was always a surprise. Here is a great if unheralded blessing of free enterprise. It is the vessel that brings us new gifts, as if brought by benefactors traveling from afar. More spectacular still than importing an existing good from a foreign land, enterprise actually creates something the did not previously exist, something designed and produced for us, something that permits the continued renewal of the experience of life itself. In this way, the market process instantiates an aspect of the most outstanding attribute of the Creator.

You might think there would be more appreciation of how far we’ve come. Nope. People take it all for granted. The new smartphone is released with an amazing camera and our tendency is to be impressed for about three days. Then we move on, waiting for the next amazing thing. What about a rollback? Unthinkable. We are predisposed to think that all progress is irreversible. We think it is built into the structure of reality. We couldn’t live without it.

Hey, I’m not really complaining. The attitude that demands material progress is a driving force behind the advances themselves. If no one craved the next thing, if inventors didn’t push forward, if no one really cared if the human family thrived or stagnated, we wouldn’t see any progress at all. The attitude shaped the whole of the American character. We expect tomorrow to be better than today. We look back on the past and we wonder how the heck people got by.

Kids today wonder how life was even possible before the Internet. And you know it’s not just kids. Just the other day, I was thinking about an early job I had. I had to think hard to figure out how I even found out that the job existed in order to apply for it. I struggled to remember how I even did my job in absence of the Internet. I conjured up nightmarish memories of paper storms, mail, phones with wires and otherwise struggling to know much of anything.

But it is worth asking the most-profound question: What exactly is the social mechanism that makes this possible? Here is where the frustration arises. People aren’t curious about the answer. But there is an answer.

The improvements in photographic technology from the early 19th century occurred bit by bit, with inventors and tinkerers trying and failing and then trying and succeeding. There wasn’t just one mind at work. There were thousands over a long period of time. Each new innovator learned from predecessors. They took what was already known and made slight improvements along the way.

But innovations don’t go directly from the lab to the retail store. There is a gigantic process along the way. There has to be a large capital stock to support realization. There has to be an environment of profit and loss to allow investment, and a robust division of labor to support production. There has to be marketing so that people even know that the improvement exists. There has to be discretionary income available to support both the production and consumption of the good.

There has to be a class of buyers to be the first adopters. This is usually rich people. Their interest in an innovation drives forward the marketing and distribution, so that the good can become available to ever-wider swaths of humanity. There must be a clear path ahead without regulatory barriers so that people can try things out. There needs to be private property, freedom of exchange and the absence of monopoly, and the liability for failure needs to fall on the risk takers themselves.

All these institutions are what make for progress. It is because America had all these institutions in place that each generation began to experience and expect progress. It is not inborn. It is acquired through experience. Those who live better year by year begin to expect to live better year by year.

The great tragedy of our time is that this has really begun to change — not so much in the digital world, which keeps improving, but in the physical world that the government manages, taxes and bludgeons day by day. We are starting to see young people look abroad. Those who are not are despairing about the future. The ranks of the unemployed include people who did everything right in life yet face a grim today and tomorrow.

Like the improvements in photography over time, the decline in our economic prospects has a specific cause. It comes down to the stagnation that any society faces when it is wrecked by government controls and confiscations. They are taking a toll in a terrible way, mounting year by year.

We have the ability to document anything and everything today. But we lack the ability to understand the forces that are driving down the American experience and robbing us of that thing that we once thought of as a human right. The picture we take might be in color, it might be moving, it might be customized and posted all over the world, but in the end, it’s not pretty.

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