Back in 2011, I visited an exhibition by photographer Erik Kessels at Foam, a photography museum in Amsterdam. It was an invitation to wander through rooms full of unordered mounds of printed photographs – every photo that had been uploaded to Flickr within a 24-hour period. At that time, the daily upload was around 1 million images. This was just before the total ubiquity of smart phones, before Facebook acquired Instagram, around the start of photo sharing becoming a core component of communication. As a mechanism for appreciating the volume of images generated, the exhibition was both memorable and formidable.
According to some stats from earlier this year: 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, 95 million images and videos are uploaded to Instagram, and a total of 4.7 trillion photos were stored digitally by the end of 2017. And of course, there’s an exponential curve there.
When I think back to those rooms, and how daunting the volume was even then, I viscerally felt Tagg’s comment about “the danger of being entirely submerged if the other cameras follow suit and the stream becomes a deluge.” There is no solution to the challenge of ordering and archiving such image-based data that does not involve some “archiving machine,” whether submission is to the logics of a filing cabinet or photo recognition AI.
Spielgman’s “Words: worth a thousand” seems a quaint account of the problem of ordering pre-digital images. The senior librarian’s comments that the “indexing will become more rational when we go to digital storage” seems a radical simplification of who’s definition of “rational” will have deciding power of ordering.
Perhaps it is the time of the semester, and having to deal with my own problems of “overaccumulation” of information, but surrendering to the convenient tyranny of AI suddenly seems to make sense. Yes, all ordering, codifying, archiving, will “make us ask what we have lost of our being to archival machines” – but there was a “certain lack of precision” in human ordering of pre-digital photographs too. We have never been in control of our data, some machines just give us the sense that we are.