The march of technology has historically led us from physical to digital. From offline to online. We like to focus in that direction, and even glancing back the other way can seem uncomfortable and unproductive. But we should glance -- if not to return, to at least make sure we're not leaving behind anything important.
In our mass exodus, we've gladly said goodbye to VHS tapes, CDs, photo film, and phone cords. And, in light of Google's recently announced investment in Google Wallet, we may soon bid farewell to the leather wallet.
For the most part, going digital has enriched our lives. But is there a price? Are we losing sight of our humanity in the frenetic rush to digital efficiency?
Indeed, just recently after Steve Jobs' death, some questioned the seemingly contradictory elements of his legacy: The Zen Buddhist tech messiah whose gadgets brought isolation instead of unity.
But, with one major exception, the online realm is recapturing the humanity and practicality of the offline world. We use Facebook to organize real parties. Our iPods can play through the stereo. I can now deposit a check by snapping a photo of it with my smartphone. I can also use my smartphone to download brick-and-mortar coupons or even scan barcodes and compare prices. And, my personal favorite, the father in the Darth Vader commercial can start up his car from his smart key.
But this online/offline harmony still eludes one industry: photography. If you're like me, you've got 22,000 photos stashed away on a hard drive and thousands of photos cluttering your phone.
Family, friends, holidays... each photo seemed important at the moment, right? And they still are. But you wouldn't know it by looking at them... because nobody's looking at them any more. They live in my Facebook or Twitter social stream for about 54 seconds until my friend's photos of a hot-dog eating contest pushes them below the fold. Maybe their shelf-life is extended if they get a "like" or a few choice comments like "Bro, that's awesome."
Then it's over. They get sucked into the black hole of digital space, floating in online limbo, rarely (if ever) to be seen again. Are we missing something here?
Of course, digital photos cannot be matched in speed, convenience or scope -- their ability to tap thousands of individuals in a split second is unmatched. But real photos have things their digital versions are lacking: Goosebumps. Heart. Soul.
If you're over 30, you remember the comforting warmth of printed photos: family, friends, vacations, and holidays. Persistent, beloved milestones in the journey of life. Always there smiling back at you from the living room wall or even the fridge. And holding a dog-eared photo of someone you miss provides a comfort not found in a digital slideshow. The heart does not warm in the glow of a monitor as it does in the glow of a 4x6 glossy with a love note on the back.
If you are under 30, this may all seem foreign to you. It's a shame, because printed photos keep us connected without an Internet connection, and transport us to a moment the way a JPEG cannot. As we hurl ourselves in the mass efficiency of digital photography, is it possible to look back over our shoulders and recapture this magic?
Let's remember the living room walls. The office desk frame. The magnet on your fridge (we still eat right?). Let's never lose sight of what it feels like to hold a picture of a loved one in your hands and close to your heart. Let's keep marching toward online efficiency, but let's remember to look back over our shoulders now and then.