What can a century of no innovation teach media technology?

Risto Sarvas

Risto Sarvas
Helsinki Institute for Information Technology

Typically the designers and engineers working with high technology do not look back. Why bother with history when everything is changing and when technologies such as the internet have never existed before? What can, for example, the invention of consumer film cameras in 1888 teach social media designers and developers of today?


In the past three years I dug into the history of photography to find answers to questions such as above. During my studies I have found myself a stranger among technology researchers in looking back at history and not solely leaning forward into the future. This Spring my work reached a milestone when a book co-authored by me was published: “From Snapshots to Social Media: The Changing Picture of Domestic Photography” (Spinger 2011). As the title suggests, the book spans the history of domestic photography from the past, to the present, and looks also into the future. By domestic photography I mean the kind of personal snapshot photography ordinary people do; not professional photography or photography for artistic purposes.

One of the surprising things in the history of domestic photography is that the consumer film camera changed hardly at all between its invention in 1888 and the end of film cameras in the late 1990s. This is quite amazing when we think that human history has never seen more technological advancements during the same period of time. How is it possible that the consumer camera remained unchanged?
Let us compare the first Kodak camera from 1888 to an Olympus µ-1 from 1991. Both are point-and-shoot cameras: the user points the camera and then captures an image with a single push of a button. Both have a roll of film inside on which the images are recorded. The user cannot change the exposure, zoom, aperture, or focus on either one.

Nevertheless, the Olympus has some features the first Kodak did not: the user can use a self-timer and flash; the user can load and unload a new roll of film; and the user does not have to manually advance the film after each exposure. And, of course, technically the Olympus produces superb images thanks to automation and superior technical qualities. However, at the level of user interaction, these two cameras are not very far apart. It is quite probable that a user of the 1888 Kodak would be comfortable using the 1991 Olympus.

Of course there were significant advancements in photography technology between 1888 and 1991, such as, better lenses, automatic light and distance metering, micromechanics, electronic processing of data, and flash technology, to name a few. The technical advancements in photographic film were also substantial: in sensitivity, color, materials, etc. Also, the technology to automatically develop and print the film advanced as well: for the first Kodak camera, it took more than a week to get the prints; in 1991, it took one hour to get high-quality prints.

But if we look at these technological advancements critically, we see that they were all incremental developments based on the technology introduced in 1888. All of the research and development work put into consumer film cameras in the 20th century was to make the original 1888 design better: faster, cheaper, more reliable, smaller, more automatic, and better-looking, and to produce high quality pictures. None of these advancements questioned the basic point-and-shoot camera design: an easy-to-use, small, mobile, and single-purpose camera with minimal functionality. To put it simply, the original 1888 camera was a black box for recording images on a roll of film as easily and effortlessly as possible, and this concept did not change for over a century.

Perhaps if we had not witnessed the disruption caused by digital technology and the internet we would not even notice that the consumer camera and photography could be fundamentally re-thought. We would be stuck in our minds with the idea that film produces the best images, cameras can not be embedded into other devices, the only business value in photographs is development and printing, and domestic photography is all about creating family albums.

This brings me back to the lessons to be learned: how can we as designers, engineers, and researchers of media technology identify incremental development and open our minds to think outside the box? It is easy to spot the boundaries of technological thinking in history but it is very difficult to see these boundaries now, and to be really innovative today.

However, based on my experience in studying photography, I suggest the following. The first step is to look back: innovations are only new in the context of the old. If we do not know the paths and structures that have existed and still exist we really can not notice a new idea. However, as the example above has shown, it is not enough to understand the past few years of decades, some existing paths and structures were laid down a century ago.

The second step is not to focus solely on technology. The reasons why the consumer camera did not change for a century is because of business and industry structures, people’s uses and practices, and national interests. Therefore, to be able to understand and anticipate technological development it is not enough to focus on technology itself. We also have to understand the relationship between technologies and society: social norms, business structures and value chains, regulation, organizations and institutions, technical infrastructures, public discourses and advertisements, power relations in people’s everyday lives and in technology production and marketing.

If we do not take into account the history of technology and the social construction of technology we run the risk of re-inventing the wheel and not really thinking outside the box.

Show comments

Leave a Reply