Google Photos and the Ideal of Passive Pervasive Documentation

I’ve been thinking, recently, about the past and how we remember it. That this year marks the 20th anniversary of my high school graduation accounts for some of my reflective reminiscing. Flipping through my senior yearbook, I was surprised by what I didn’t remember. Seemingly memorable events alluded to by friends in their notes and more than one of the items I myself listed as “Best Memories” have altogether faded into oblivion. “I will never forget when …” is an apparently rash vow to make.

But my mind has not been entirely washed by Lethe’s waters. Memories, assorted and varied, do persist. Many of these are sustained and summoned by stuff, much of it useless, that I’ve saved for what we derisively call sentimental reasons. My wife and I are now in the business of unsentimentally trashing as much of this stuff as possible to make room for our first child. But it can be hard parting with the detritus of our lives because it is often the only tenuous link joining who we were to who we now are. It feels as if you risk losing a part of yourself forever if you were to throw away that last delicate link.

“Life without memory,” Luis Bunuel tells us, “is no life at all.” “Our memory,” he adds, “is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” Perhaps this accounts for why tech criticism was born in a debate about memory. In the Phaedrus, Plato’s Socrates tells a cautionary tale about the invention of writing in which writing is framed as a technology that undermines the mind’s power to remember. What we can write down, we will no longer know for ourselves–or so Socrates worried. He was, of course, right. But, as we all know, this was an incomplete assessment of writing. Writing did weaken memory in the way Plato feared, but it did much else besides. It would not be the last time critics contemplated the effects of a new technology on memory.

I’ve not written nearly as much about memory as I once did, but it continues to be an area of deep interest. That interest was recently renewed not only by personal circumstances but also by the rollout of Google Photos, a new photo storage app with cutting edge sorting and searching capabilities. According to Steven Levy, Google hopes that it will be received as a “visual equivalent to Gmail.” On the surface, this is just another digital tool designed to store and manipulate data. But the data in question is, in this case, intimately tied up with our experience and how we remember it. It is yet another tool designed to store and manipulate memory.

When Levy asked Bradley Horowitz, the Google executive in charge of Photos, what problem does Google Photos solve? Horowitz replied,

“We have a proliferation of devices and storage and bandwidth, to the point where every single moment of our life can be saved and recorded. But you don’t get a second life with which to curate, review, and appreciate the first life. You almost need a second vacation to go through the pictures of the safari on your first vacation. That’s the problem we’re trying to fix — to automate the process so that users can be in the moment. We also want to bring all of the power of computer vision and machine learning to improve those photos, create derivative works, to make suggestions…to really be your assistant.”

It shouldn’t be too surprising that the solution to the problem of pervasive documentation enabled by technology is a new technology that allows you to continue documenting with even greater abandon. Like so many technological fixes to technological problems, it’s just a way of doubling down on the problem. Nor is it surprising that he also suggested this would help users “be in the moment” without of a hint of irony.

But here is the most important part of the whole interview, emphasis mine:

“[…] so part of Google photos is to create a safe space for your photos and remove any stigma associated with saving everything. For instance, I use my phone to take pictures of receipts, and pictures of signs that I want to remember and things like that. These can potentially pollute my photo stream. We make it so that things like that recede into the background, so there’s no cognitive burden to actually saving everything.”

Replace saving with remembering and the potential significance of a tool like Google Photos becomes easier to apprehend. Horowitz is here confirming that users will need to upload their photos to Google’s Cloud if they want to take advantage of Google Photos’ most impressive features. He anticipates that there will be questions about privacy and security, hence the mention of safety. But the really important issue here is this business about saving everything.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the stigma Horowitz is talking about, but the cognitive burden of “saving everything” is presumably the burden of sorting and searching. How do you find the one picture you’re looking for when you’ve saved thousands of pictures across a variety of platforms and drives? How do you begin to organize all of these pictures in any kind of meaningful way? Enter Google Photos and its uncanny ability to identify faces and group pictures into three basic categories–People, Places, and Things–as well as a variety of sub-categories such as “food,” “beach,” or “cars.” Now you don’t need that second life to curate your photos. Google does it for you. Now we may document our lives to our heart’s content without a second thought about whether or not we’ll ever go back to curate our unwieldy hoard of images.

I’ve argued elsewhere that we’ve entered an age of memory abundance, and the abundance of memories makes us indifferent to them. When memory is scarce, we treasure it and care deeply about preserving it. When we generate a surfeit of memory, our ability to care about it diminishes proportionately. We can no longer relate to how Roland Barthes treasured his mother’s photograph; we are more like Andy Warhol, obsessively recording all of his interactions and never once listening to the recordings. Plato was, after all, even closer to the mark than we realized. New technologies of memory reconfigure the affections as well as the intellect. But is it possible that Google Photos will prove this judgement premature? Has Google figured out how we may have our memory cake and eat it too?

I think not, and there’s a historical precedent that will explain why.

Ivan Illich, in his brilliant study of medieval reading and the evolution of the book, In the Vineyard of the Text, noted how emerging textual technologies reconfigured how readers related to what they read. It is a complex, multifaceted argument and I won’t do justice to it here, but the heart of it is summed up in the title of Illich’s closing chapter, “From Book to Text.” After explaining what Illich meant by the that formulation, I’m going to suggest that we consider an analogous development: from photograph to image.

Like the photography, writing is, as Plato understood, a mnemonic technology. The book or codex is only one form the technology has taken, but it is arguably the most important form owing to its storage capacity and portability. Contrast the book to, for instance, a carved stone tablet or a scroll and you’ll immediately recognize the brilliance of the design. But the matter of sorting and searching remained a significant problem until the twelfth century. It is then that new features appeared to improve the book’s accessibility and user-friendliness, among them chapter titles, pagination, and the alphabetized index. Now one cloud access particular passages without having to either read the whole work or, more to the point, either memorize the passages or their location in the book (illuminated manuscripts were designed to aide with the latter).

My word choice in describing the evolution of the book above was, of course, calculated to make us see the book as a technology and also to make certain parallels to the case of digital photography more obvious. But what was the end result of all of this innovation? What did Illich mean by saying that the book became a text?

Borrowing a phrase Katherine Hayles deployed to describe a much later development, I’d say that Illich is getting at one example of how information lost its body. In other words, prior to these developments it was harder to imagine the text of a book as a free-floating reality that could be easily lifted and presented in a different format. The ideas, if you will, and the material that conveyed them–the message and medium–were intimately bound together; one could hardly imagine the two existing independently. This had everything to do with the embodied dimensions of the reading experience and the scarcity of books. Because there was no easy way to dip in and out of a book to look for a particular fragment and because one would likely encounter but one copy of a particular work, the work was experienced as a whole that lived within the particular pages of the book one held in hand.

The book had then been read reverentially as a window on the world; it yielded what Illich termed monastic reading. The text was later, after the technical innovations of the twelfth century, read as a window on the mind of the author; it yielded scholastic reading. We might also characterize these as devotional reading and academic reading, respectively. Illich summed it up this way:

“The text could now be seen as something distinct from the book. It was an object that could be visualized even with closed eyes [….] The page lost the quality of soil in which words are rooted. The new text was a figment on the face of the book that lifted off into autonomous existence [….] Only its shadow appeared on the page of this or that concrete book. As a result, the book was no longer the window onto nature or god; it was no longer the transparent optical device through which a reader gains access to creatures or the transcendent.”

Illich had, a few pages earlier, put the matter more evocatively: “Modern reading, especially of the academic and professional type, is an activity performed by commuters or tourists; it is no longer that of pedestrians and pilgrims.”

I recount Illich’s argument because it illuminates the changes we are witnessing with regards to photography. Illich demonstrated two relevant principles. First, that small technical developments can have significant and lasting consequences for the experience and meaning of media. The move from analog to digital photography should naturally be granted priority of place, but subsequent developments such as those in face recognition software and automated categorization should not be underestimated. Secondly, that improvements in what we might today call retrieval and accessibility can generate an order of abstraction and detachment from the concrete embodiment of media. And this matters because the concrete embodiment, the book as opposed to the text, yields kinds and degrees of engagement that are unique to it.

Let me try to put the matter more directly and simultaneously apply it to the case of photography. Improving accessibility meant that readers could approach the physical book as the mere repository of mental constructs, which could be poached and gleaned at whim. Consequently, the book was something to be used to gain access to the text, which now appeared for the first time as an abstract reality; it ceased to be itself a unique and precious window on the world and its affective power was compromised.

Now, just as the book yielded to the text, so the photograph yields to the image. Imagine a 19th century woman gazing lovingly at a photograph of her son. The woman does not conceive of the photograph as one instantiation of the image of her son. Today, however, we who hardly ever hold photographs anymore, we can hardly help thinking it terms of images, which may be displayed on any of a number of different platforms, not to mention manipulated at whim. The image is an order of abstraction removed from the photograph and it would be hard to imagine someone treasuring it in the same way that we might treasure an old photograph. Perhaps a thought experiment will drive this home. Try to imagine the emotional distance between the act of tearing up a photograph and deleting an image.

Now let’s come back to the problem Google Photos is intended to solve. Will automated sorting and categorization along with the ability to search succeed in making our documentation more meaningful? Moreover, will it overcome the problems associated with memory abundance? Doubtful. Instead, the tools will facilitate further abstraction and detachment. They are designed to encourage the production of even more documentary data and to further diminish our involvement in their production and storage. Consequently, we will continue to care less not more about particular images.

Of course, this hardly means the tools are useless or that images are meaningless. I’m certain that face recognition software, for instance, can and will be put to all sorts of uses, benign and otherwise and that the reams of data users will feed Google Photos will only help to improve and refine the software. And it is also true that images can be made use of in ways that photographs never could. But perhaps that is the point. A photograph we might cherish; we tend to make use of images. Unlike the useless stuff around which my memories accumulate and that I struggle to throw away, images are all use-value and we don’t think twice about deleting them when they have no use.

Finally, Google’s answer to the problem of documentation, that it takes us out of the moment as it were, is to encourage such pervasive and continual documentation that it is no longer experienced as a stepping out of the moment at all. The goal appears to be a state of continual passive documentation in which case the distinction between experience and documentation blurs so that the two are indistinguishable. The problem is not so much solved as it is altogether transcended. To experience life will be to document it. In so doing we are generating a second life, a phantom life that abides in the Cloud.

And perhaps we may, without stretching the bounds of plausibility too far, reconsider that rather ethereal, heavenly metaphor–the Cloud. As we generate this phantom life, this double of ourselves constituted by data, are we thereby hoping, half-consciously, to evade or at least cope with the unremitting passage of time and, ultimately, our mortality?

8 thoughts on “Google Photos and the Ideal of Passive Pervasive Documentation

  1. I, in India, live in a more simple technological environment -by choice. I do not even use the cellphone.
    So, this was just a bit heavy for me! But finding mention of Ivan Illich, I could not resist reading it fully.

    It is true, life is not much without memory. But the mind or psyche has a system to throw off certain things over time. Have you noticed how often we remember bad things, against our wish, while many good memories fade away? Macbeth cries out in anguish:
    Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased
    And pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow?
    So memory works both ways!

    Mention of new ( more) technology to solve problems of present technology sounded a bit familiar- may be like ‘war to end all wars’? I think the way to solve problems of technology is to transcend it!
    When we visit a beach or a mountain peak, we focus on photography and forget the moment . In the long run, it is the moment that makes the memory- makes the scene memorable! How many small memories of our childhood are embedded in our consciousness- do you call it memory? It is something deeper. so, if we forget the photograph, and focus on the scene ourselves, and not through the camera or the cellphone, we would remember it better!
    I often wondered. Music concerts I heard 50 years ago are still fresh in my memory, while the song I heard last month, and can get any time on Youtube does not stick to the mind! The old was precious- we knew it could not be had for the asking, and we didn’t have too many either, so it registered somewhere deeper than the mind, and it still lingers there. Now we know the song is on the Youtube, so it need not be on our mind! So, technology can actually hinder memory! I do not know what Ivan Illich or Jacques Ellul have said or may say!

    Thank you for talking about Ivan Illich. His ‘Deschooling Society’ and ‘Tools for Conviviality’ opened new vistas to my mind 40 years ago!

    1. Thank you for your comment. I’m inclined to agree. I think it comes down to the labor–physical, emotional, mental, etc.–that is involved. Whenever we pass off that labor to a tool, something is lost. Maybe the loss is made up for by what you gain, but very often that may not be the case, as in some of the examples you list.

      I appreciate both Illich and Ellul; wish I knew their work better than I do.


  2. Photographs, particularly the pre-digital images on paper, tin, glass and other surfaces of “permanence” have given way to a new category of images. This category has yet to be properly defined since they are stored in the ‘ether’ rather than in a physical material construct such as a box, drawer, album or wallet for retrieval,. Yet, these digital images, while immediate, suffer the same fate as their predecessors in that their purpose as memory is transitory. The difference is they can be easily erased, and/or manipulated and therefore their role as memory becomes suspect at best. At least when pre-digital images faded, they were mirroring the very act of the actual memory of the photographer who took the picture for the purpose, generally, of remembering. Once the photographer either no longer remembers or no longer exists, the image becomes an artifact, of a time and place, open to interpretation, which has nothing to do with its original intent. And, in time the value of the image may lie in not in what prompted its creation but in the placard, if it is deemed worthy, describing it, which is the ultimate irony since viewers prefer to read about it than actually look at it.

  3. “To experience life will be to document it.”

    I found that sentence to be a little scary, and almost prophetic.
    I just hope that the reverse will never be true. But with people constantly hunkering down to their screens all the time, I’m not so sure anymore.

  4. How exquisite it would have been to find a link to a nicely crafted PDF copy of this article, so that I could print it out, hold it in my hand and enjoy reading it in a comfy chair, with a warm beverage.

    Nevertheless, I will be pondering this idea for quite awhile. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s