How photography has made us dumb

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Everyone is familiar with the old trope, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The apocryphal origins of the phrase – though its initial usage is traced back to American newspaper advertisements in the early 20th century – seem to make it even more popular, embedding it into proverbial Western culture. Ever since Joseph Nicephore Niepce took the first photographic image with a camera obscura – the indubitably more prominent Lou- is Daguerre developed the more modern photographic process – in 1827, photography has advanced steadily; colour photography emerged in the 1940s, after which many scientists and inventors are credited with developing ever new and more exacting ways to capture reality.

By the dawn of the new millennium, approximately eighty-six billion photographs were taken per year – most of them by an analogue camera, using real film which had to be developed to produce physical photos. In twelve years, and with the advent of digital photography, that number has quadrupled, so that in 2012 over 380 billion photographs were taken. That number represents ten percent of all photographs ever taken. Facebook now lays claim to over 140 billion photographs, 10,000 times the number of those in the Library of Congress. The percentage of the 140 billion that were taken in a bathroom mirror is unknown, yet I believe it is a substantial number. It is estimated that every two minutes, humankind takes more photographs than were produced in all of the 19th century.

This explains a lot.

Now, as sentences are getting shorter and shorter, as we subscribe to a 140-character muffle and obsequiously attend to inane, microbial status updates and senseless memes, we don’t seem to be saying much. In fact, we don’t say very much at all – news comes in bite-size bits, and the ingredient list on a Doritos package is far longer than any article we manage to read. We abbreviate constantly, with txt and sms, ubiquitous OMG and LOL; when we can’t stand to expend characters online, we simply “like” – the virtual nod of approval.

I used to think it was due to our receding attention spans, an endemic laziness coupled with an inexplicable propensity toward ignorance. But now I have another theory – our photographs are muting us. English teachers worldwide have been urging us to “show, not tell”; after countless angry red-pen marks and comments, now we are vindicated: we show everything. Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook – we upload pictures of our pets, our breakfasts, and often ourselves; it would be embarrassing to run out into the street and scream, “Look at me! I just cut my hair! Don’t I look great?” No such inhibitions exist online. Phone calls are cut short, even text messages abandoned for SnapChat – why talk, when you can snap? Talking requires activity in Broca’s area, the speech-formulation section of the brain. Taking a picture requires the press of a (now imperceptible – thanks, touchscreens!) button. Less effort. Better results. We inundate the Internet with memes – funny, silly, strange photographs, often captioned, that evoke a knee-jerk laugh, a primordial snort. We take incessant pictures during a night out – there is no such thing as undocumented fun. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is the aphorismic mantra, the desperate flash of an iPhone – in the Information Age, this time of doubt and stringently empirical data, we rely on photographs for hard evidence of what we do, who we are, where we go, how we live. We once relied on memory, on diaries, on each other – now the only thing we can rely on are our photographs.

They say numbers don’t lie. Photographs can, and do lie: but they do it so that all we have to do is say “Cheese.”

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