I Am A Camera – Not. I Am A Computer.

Some may be knowledgeable enough to wonder what they will find in an article on the play “I Am A Camera” by John Druten made in 1955 almost 50 years ago. This play was made into a film and eventually was the basis of Bob Fosse’s great 1975 masterpiece “Cabaret”. However this is not an item on pre-Second World War Germany. The title says it all. The world is sometimes not what it seems.

Human beings are very visual creatures. An image can evoke a multitude of thoughts and sensations. We go through our lives with our window on the world. We can be moved to feel great emotions – anger, sorrow, joy, happiness, tranquillity – as different images come into our view. It’s a great world.

Associated with any image there is some associated information. This is what the technologues would call ‘meta data’. In other words, this is all the factual information about the image. It can include who made the image, how they made it, when they made it, statistics on its resolution and content. If the image contains symbols and characters, then the meta data might include a text version of the symbols and characters.

The human being turning through the pages of a National Geographic Magazine is not usually concerned with the meta data. Instead they turn over the pages and find some images that attract their attention. So they look more closely. Similarly someone walking down a city street sees people and billboards. One or the other may attract their attention. It’s the direct power of the image that exercises this attraction, not the associated meta data.

Now however the world has changed in a dramatic way for many for huge slices of their lives. They sit in front of a computer screen and see what appears on the screen. Through the Internet they see images from around the world or in their local surroundings. Surely this has become their window on the world. Isn’t this just an enhanced ability to see images?

Well, yes and no … The computer is not just like a glorified camera you hold up to your eye. In the street, you catch a glimpse of an attractive member of the opposite sex. So your attention is drawn to that image and perhaps you turn your head to get a better look.

If you think the computer is doing something very similar, then you are missing an important distinction. In order for you to see an image, you currently have to type in some words to “tell the computer” where to go. In technical terms, you are trying to specify the ‘meta data’ to define what you want to see. You’re forced to do that because the computer only understands meta data. For every image “out there”, there is associated meta data. So the computer tries to match the meta data for what you want to see with the meta data for all the images out there. If there’s a match, the computer brings up the image and you see what you were looking for. I would like to see an image of Paris Hilton in 2003. Suddenly one appears on the screen. So what was complicated about that?

Well that ‘matching meta data’ is a horrendous computing task. In fact for most meta data, the problem is that there are almost an infinity of images out there whose meta data could ‘match’ the meta data in my request. The computer will have used some incredibly powerful computing facilities to be able to produce an image that may match what I’m looking for. I will not be aware exactly what has been done. Perhaps I put my request into a Google search field on a toolbar on my computer. What exactly is done with those search terms, how they may be weighted … someone else determines all that.

So here is the fundamental change. Before I pointed my camera at something I was interested in and soaked up the image. I knew what I was looking at.

Now I must try to specify what I want to look at in words (‘meta data’) and some unknown process points me at a matching image. Whether I see the best image that would fit my needs is unknown to me. Someone else is now pointing me in the “right direction”. Of course, I’m winning because I have the potential to see an image from a very much larger collection of images. At the same time, I may be losing because someone else may have influenced the process so that I see an image they would like me to see, rather than one I might prefer.

1 thought on “I Am A Camera – Not. I Am A Computer.”

  1. after reading this article i am almost too scared to switch my camera on. not. if a child can take pictures without any thought to the meta data problem i am pretty sure the rest of us can too. sometimes a camera is just a camera. it takes images forged from light. – Stephen

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