The Null Device

The past is a foreign country

John C. Dvorak takes a break from speculating about Apple and Microsoft to look at how strange our world would look to someone from the 1920s:
Let me begin with the one new commonplace practice that has less to do with technology than with legislation. And that's the crowd of people huddled in a group outside a building smoking cigarettes. This would have to be a weird sight for people from 1920. We don't think much about it, but it is indeed a weird sight.
Perhaps the weirdest societal change has to do with digital cameras and the practice of framing shots in the preview window by holding the camera out in front of yourself. Even ten years ago, nobody would have predicted that most people would now take pictures this way. Give people a pro digital SLR camera and they will still hold the thing in front of them at arm's length.
(Are there digital SLRs that display a preview of the scene on the LCD screen in real time? My Canon EOS doesn't do that. I thought the whole point of an SLR is to require the photographer to look through the viewfinder, thus reinforcing their perception that they're a Real Photographer following a weighty and time-honoured tradition and standing on the shoulders of giants like Ansel Adams, rather than a mere amateur playing ignorantly around with a shiny, instantly-gratifying toy.)
Would anyone even 20 years ago have predicted that on every business card you will now find a standardized e-mail address? It's now deemed weird if you do not have an e-mail address on the card and have to write it on.
All these things and others he mentions (mobile phones/BlackBerries, chatrooms, and so on) would seem utterly alien to someone from the 1920s (though I wonder whether any futurists or science-fiction writers from those times have predicted anything that comes close to the mark). When you think about it, some of them would seem quite odd to someone who had been asleep for a quarter of a century. One thinks of the 1980s, for example, as the recent past (after all, they had Madonna and Michael Jackson) rather than the Past proper, that foreign country (as L.P. Hartley put it) where they do things differently. Though someone who just woke up from having been in a coma since 1981 would find themselves in a different world: lacking a lot of little things they took for granted (like being able to smoke in offices, or on aeroplanes) and having a bunch of new, alien innovations (the internet and mobile phones, and the profound changes in social and cultural dynamics they have brought about, would be the big ones). To our 1981 exile, our mundane technology would seem slightly science-fictional: from our tiny, feature-packed DVD recorders and MP3 players (does anyone remember how huge early video recorders were?) to communications devices like something out of Star Trek, 2006 would look like scifi, only without the silver lamé jumpsuits and flying cars and other stylistic conventions that say "this is the (space-)future".

The iPods people listen to would seem familiar enough to our visitor, like a more advanced Walkman; what they'd make of the mainstream pop music of today, infused with influences from everything from hip-hop (a fringe scene in 1981, well below the radar) to dance-music genres driven by recent technology, is another matter. If the iPod in question was playing one of the various retro-styled acts popular today, from Gang Of Four/XTC-quoting new-wave-indie-art-rock bands to the last Madonna album, they may find it slightly familiar, though all the more unsettling in the subtle differences that betray it as of 2006, and made for a 2006 audience.

What if someone from 1991 arrived in 2006, with no awareness of the last 15 years? The shock would be somewhat lesser (though, in some ways, perhaps greater; the current age of homeland security and perpetual war against sinister shadows could be more of a rude awakening from the post-Berlin-Wall optimism of the 1990s than from the age of Mutual Assured Destruction). Email addresses on business cards would still seem a bit odd, though if our visitor was an academic or scientist, they would be familiar with them, and one could just about imagine the current state of the world leading to 2006, with its web-based commerce and pocket-sized, ubiquitous mobile phones. Though digital cameras could still seem strange.

In other words, the immediate past is a different neighbourhood; they do things slightly differently there. Go far enough and people start speaking a different language, though if you do so a day at a time, you won't notice the changes.

I wonder how strange 2016, or 2031, would seem to someone from now.

There are 8 comments on "The past is a foreign country":

Posted by: tilt Wed Jun 7 22:25:55 2006

Well, there's a specific technical problem with the SLR example -- when you're not taking a picture, there's a mirror that's reflecting the image up into the viewfinder. The only time the image touches the actual camera sensor is when you click the shutter button, and the mirror flips up and out of the way. So no -- I don't think it's even possible to take a picture using the LCD screen alone on an SLR.

Posted by: toby Wed Jun 7 22:38:54 2006

The viewfinder is important for minimising visual distractions, however, so I don't think it's going to go away. What may potentially be in the works is a mirrorless 'SLR' system, in which the viewfinder is actually viewing an LCD projecting the image.

Mirrorless systems would have a lot of advantages including reduced vibration, less wear on the mirror, more precise exposure control, simpler optics, and a wider range of shutter speeds. Also, to be able to directly feed from a camera to a large LCD would be a very big boon for fashion and advertising photographers, I'd imagine.

Posted by: acb Thu Jun 8 00:08:29 2006

Every camera I've seen that wasn't packaged in a phone (and thus only a camera as an afterthought) had a viewfinder of some sort. Mind you, the only time I've used the viewfinder on any of my digital compacts was when the battery was too low to run the screen.

Posted by: cos Thu Jun 8 00:15:08 2006

The Olympus E-330 <a href="">(dpreview review)</a> is/was the first SLR to offer a "live preview" on the LCD. But it's just the one, so far. He's right, though, that since most people are used to P&S digicams now (some of which have done away with viewfinders all together), they'd probably pick up an SLR and try the usual thing of using the screen instead.

Posted by: Andrew Thu Jun 8 23:31:01 2006

I think it's fair to say that someone from the early 80's Melbourne would well and truely freak at modern day Melbourne 2006. Have a fish around the net and you'll see in the early 80's, Melbourne had barely a single skyscraper. Not to mention all the "landmarks" that have been built in the past 20 years: Crown, Bolte Bridge, Fed Square, QV.

I think if I woke up from the 80's and discovered that all the old shopping strips have turned into cafe strips, and the old GPO is now a Chadstone try-hard, I'd crawl into a ball and cry.

Posted by: acb Thu Jun 8 23:37:11 2006

I don't know about you, but I like the cafe culture. Living in London, a city with a rubbish cafe culture, has made me appreciate how good Melbourne's is even more.

Posted by: toby Thu Jun 8 23:59:25 2006

P&S viewfinders are invariably not through-the-lens, which makes them worse than useless, especially for close work. They also don't mirror the aperture setting, so you can't preview depth of field.

Posted by: acb Fri Jun 9 08:50:17 2006

I know, which is why I rarely use them.

Surely the main design decision for making a DSLR with a real-time screen preview would be a switch which switches between visor and screen mode, in the latter case retracting the mirror and running the sensor. (I'm guessing that DSLR sensors are capable of running in real time just like compact sensors are, with no compromise in quality.)