Thanks to digital cameras and smartphones, shooting pictures and video is virtually free. There is no cost for film and no need to develop it. Digital storage keeps getting cheaper and cheaper, and we are swiftly migrating to the cloud (probably, in an effort to secure our digital belongings and have access to them anywhere we are). These visual captures of anything that calls our attention have become one of our greatest sources of digitally generated content. And it is because of their ever-increasing size that we keep running out of space, over and over again.
On top of the picture itself, the digital file of a photograph carries with it more information than you might think. This so-called metadata gets embedded into the digital picture, and contains, for instance, information about where and when the photograph was taken, the model of the camera, or the exposure and speed it was shot with. All of this information is saved along with the millions of pixels that conform the image itself1. One click (or tap), and a vast amount of image data gets captured on the fly and stored in the physical memory of your device. If only for a moment, lets leave privacy concerns aside and focus on how to manage all of this information.
The organization of our digital media library sounds as if we were dealing with physical objects: We sort (digital) documents inside (virtual) folders, and even have a desktop and a trash can. There is, however, a fundamental difference that might sound obvious to you. When you shut down your device, your digital clutter fades away. On the contrary, physical clutter won't go out of sight that easily. There is no off button to press and you need to actively take care of things. Somehow, we always manage to fill every single spot with stuff and, while you can buy digital storage for a decent price if you run out of space, buying or renting physical space is expensive. As Mikael Cho points out when talking about how clutter affects our brain234, “when you introduce new items into your life, you immediately associate value with [them], making it harder for you to give them up in the future. This psychological connection to things is what leads to the accumulation of stuff.” In the digital world, each of these new items is a file that needs to be taken care of. You may edit, share, archive, or delete it, but even if the file in question is a video of a dancing panda, you will need to decide what to do with it at some point in the future.
Today, we take more pictures than have been taken in any other époque. Digital files keep getting larger and larger5, and we continue to accumulate a huge mass of files—frequently postponing their organization for later.
If you own a smartphone, you already know it's way faster (and more pleasant) to take pictures than it is to transfer them to a computer. Organizing and editing pictures is tedious, and we never find the right time to do it.
We need to download pictures from our phones and cameras and back them up to a computer, an external drive, or to the cloud; We need to filter our captures, to decide which ones to keep and which ones to let go; We want to edit the best ones; And we want to share them online.
This tedious and time consuming curation process makes the act of taking pictures a chaos.
Companies like Dropbox, Google, or Apple try to educate us on how to organize our media library and manage our personal data by establishing workflows to store, browse, share, and backup our files. Apple, for instance, offers users to buy cloud storage when their phones are running out of space. They make syncing data to the cloud easier than transferring it to your computer, and it's not in their best interest to provide us with more physical storage in our devices—they want as many people as possible to transition to their subscription-based model. We could argue, however, that these services provide us with a good solution to avoid continuously running out of space, by subscribing to one of their cloud storage plans (and paying a few dollars a month). In my case, I use Dropbox, as I find it easy to transfer pictures taken with my phone to my computer using their iOS app.
I like to think that, in the near future, the large files of today will be small. Pictures you take today will remain the same size (or smaller due to new compression algorithms) but storage will be larger and cheaper.
Technological advances in software and hardware keep making our smartphones and cameras more intelligent. In 2013, for instance, Google incorporated a new way to browse your library powered by computer vision and machine learning technology. "You can now easily search your own photos without having to manually label each and every one of them," writes Chuck Rosenberg at Google Research Blog. "[This technology] uses visual content of an image to generate searchable tags for photos combined with other sources like tags and EXIF metadata to enable search across thousands of concepts like a flower, food, car, jet skit, or turtle6."
Our devices sort our photos on the background—a task that would take us hours (if not days). Even in the most chaotic library, you can find people by face, group pictures by date or event or location, and search specific things within your photos. "Hey Siri, show me all the pictures of cars." And Siri is able to filter your library and display only photos and videos of cars.
A more recent development is the Portrait Mode being featured in new smartphones. This camera mode can infer a depth map with machine learning algorithms to simulate the bokeh effect that DSLR lenses produce when taking a picture of a subject with a shallow depth of field—a powerful tool in combination with live filters (photo adjustments applied even before shooting) and image-editing apps (like VSCO or Instagram) to edit pictures on-the-go. Unless you are a professional photographer, these high-quality photos and edits might suffice, and you will surely save hours of post-processing when you get back home.
As author James Gleick notes in his book titled The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood: "The information produced and consumed by humankind used to vanish—that was the norm, the default. The sights, the sounds, the songs, the spoken word just melted away. Marks on stone, parchment, and paper were the special case. It did not occur to Sophocles’ audiences that it would be sad for his plays to be lost; they enjoyed the show. Now expectations have inverted." Except on special cases, everything would get lost forever. Technology feeds our ever-growing obsession to document every aspect of our lives. "Everything may be recorded and preserved," continues Gleick, "at least potentially: every musical performance; every crime in a shop, elevator, or city street; every volcano or tsunami on the remotest shore; every card played or piece moved in an online game; every rugby scrum and cricket match. Having a camera at hand is normal, not exceptional; something like 500 billion images were captured in 2010. YouTube was streaming more than a billion videos a day. Most of this is haphazard and unorganized, but there are extreme cases. The computer pioneer Gordon Bell, at Microsoft Research in his seventies, began recording every moment of his day, every conversation, message, document, a megabyte per hour or a gigabyte per month, wearing around his neck what he called a 'SenseCam' to create what he called a 'LifeLog.' Where does it end? Not with the Library of Congress."
Technology made it extremely easy for us to generate and access immense amounts of information, but we struggle to find the time and mental space to process it all. Even if technology brings intelligent new ways to digest more information, it's on us to accept that we can't handle it all. Our focus should not be on how to consume more, but on how to consume better.
Our phones and cameras can capture millions of pixels per second. The iPhone X, for instance, captures twelve million pixels per second (12 megapixels), and Canon prototyped a sensor that can capture more than two hundred millions of pixels per second. ↩︎
Cho, Mikael (2013). How Clutter Affects Your Brain and What You Can Do About It. ↩︎
Wolf, J. R., Arkes, H. R., & Muhanna, W. A. (2008). The Power of Touch: An Examination of the Effect of Duration of Physical Contact on the Valuation of Objects. ↩︎
My pictures from 2003 are around 1 MB in size each (0.001 GB). Today, high quality pictures are larger than 20 MB. Our phones and computers keep extending their storage, and we can also subscribe to cloud services or buy a new hard drive. ↩︎
Rosenberg, Chuck (2013). Google. Improving Photo Search: A Step Across the Semantic Gap. ↩︎