Sunday, August 28, 2005

Love/Hate Relationships with Computers

Unfortunately, this week in cyberspace was a rather frustrating one. Within the course of a 24 hour period, I had to call tech support at HP to get my daughter's new printer set up in her dorm room, at Apple to get my wireless mouse working, and at Epson to fix the poor print quality of my R800 printer. Then the brand new Creative speaker system for my daughter's dorm computer didn't speak, and the turntable my other daughter bought on eBay didn't turn.

On the optimistic side, I like to think a useful lesson can be learned from these experiences. This week led me to speculate about how there are at least three types of love/hate relationships with computers:

1. Love to use them; hate to fix them: I imagine many people fall into this category. They love using computers to write, gather and organize information, shop, do video and digital photography, communicate online, etc. However, they don't want to have to fix them when something goes wrong. They get annoyed, frustrated, or even very upset when faced with a software or hardware problem. An analogy might be people who love driving and car trips, but don't want to be bothered by car mechanics or fixing a breakdown. Some people in this category might actually know something about computer technology and possess some skills in fixing a problem. They just don't like doing it.

2. Love to use and fix them: This is a fortuitous and probably somewhat unusual combination. These people often possess an intrinsic interest in computer technology. At one end of this category are people who use the computer for specific productive purposes, as well as tackle breakdowns with energetic motivation and even delight. At the other end are people whose primary focus is exploring and fiddling with the technology itself. While they may use the computer to accomplish some tasks, those tasks might actually be a means to an end - the "end" being the delight in playing with computer technology.

3. Hate them, period. These people want nothing to do with computers. Their hate might be a cover up for ignorance and fear. They may not understand computers. They may believe they are not up to the challenge of using them. In Luddite fashion, they may believe computers are creating more problems for society than they solve. I suspect this group is dwindling rather quickly. A decade from now, only rebels, eccentrics, outcasts, and perhaps a few bonafide visionaries might find themselves in this group.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Virtual Impermanence

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've undergone some significant computer transitions this summer - a batch of new programs, upgrading to a new OS, backing up my entire drive, reformatting it, and migrrating back all my files after that OS became corrupted.

Some perturbing but enlightening things happened along the way. Text files I had written years ago for a ongoing book project - an anthology of stories about raising our daughters - were difficult to open. Word finally managed to translate these old AppleWorks files, but with all the formatting lost and lots of glitches. While migrating all my family photos back to the reformatted drive, I spent a hour in a state of panic trying to find two months worth of precious pics, including shots of my daughter's high school graduation and prom. Had I forgotten to back them up? Much to my relief, I finally found them.

In my readings of digital photography, I learned about the marvelous benefits of my shooting in RAW, except that the RAW format is specific to each camera brand, which means that sometime in the future that format might be abandoned, which in turn means that I may not be able to open those files with software of the future. Should I save my pics in the currently standard TIFF format, or the new Adobe DNG format that some experts think will become the new standard... or will these "standards" someday become obsolete too?

This summer I also transferred all our old family VHS video tapes to DVD, some forty disks worth. After completing this rather time-consuming project, I learned that the ink from the marker pens I used to label them tends to seep into the disk and may eventually damage the images. I also learned that an entirely new DVD format is on the horizon.

All of this has reinforced a realization that I have tried, over the past 25 years of using computers, to minimize or even deny: Cyberspace is replete with impermanence. Electrons whiz around the world at the speed of light, enabling us to reach into all sorts of online territories quickly and efficiently. But as Heisenberg aptly noted, electrons are uncertain, ephemeral things, as are the worlds constructed from them.
A person's email address is here today and gone tomorrow. As I type this sentence, there are probably hundreds or even thousands of people searching their computer for a file that mysteriously disapeared. When I first created my online book The Psychology of Cyberspace, I eagerly incorporated links to other Internet resources. One by one, almost all of those external pages disappeared, leaving behind dead links and 404s.

Given how quickly and efficiently we use computers to store incredibly large numbers of text, image, music, and movie files, it's comforting to think that we can create a large scale continuity of these resources over long periods of time. But with the wrong click of a button, those things are gone. If you aren't diligent in periodically transferring files into the new formats, they are as good as gone. And even if you are diligent, will your children and grandchildren be as conscientious in continuing to transfer those family photos into the now unimagined formats of the future?

All things must pass, the eastern mystics tell us. In our modern cyberspaced culture, we push the limits of that truth and immerse ourselves into media that come and go almost faster than we notice their existence. Does encountering impermanence on a daily, media-enhanced basis make us appreciate things more, or less?

While I think about that, I will continue printing out and binding all the chapters of that book about my children, as well as printing out and even framing some of my best digital photos.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

JPEG and RAW reality

As I'm learning more about digital photography, I'm continuing to think about the imagistic qualities of cyberspace and how we construct reality within it. This week I've been thinking about the jpeg.

I won't go into the details of what a jpeg image is. If you're interested in such details, you can check out that wikipedia link above. In a nutshell, it's a smaller or compressed format for images - compressed because, in cyberspace, we want to read and transfer files as quickly as possible. We also want to save space on our drives. Right away that tells us something interesting about our attitudes concerning representations of reality. We want it ASAP and we don't want it to take up too much room.

Jpeg also is a "lossy" image format. When you compress an image into a jpeg, some information is thrown out. The quality of the image degrades a little bit. In fact, savvy digital photographers know that each time you open, edit, and resave a jpeg image, the quality of the image degrades a little bit each time. So in our need to work quickly and conserve space as we edit reality, we might unintentionally sacrifice its clarity.

There's a reverse side to this clarity issue. Almost all digital cameras have a default setting that processes the "raw" image recorded by the camera's sensor and transforms that image into a jpeg. However, that jpeg is quite different than the raw image. Most cameras are set to enhance the jpeg by boosting, just a little bit, the sharpness, contrast, and color saturation. The end result is an eye-popping picture that elicits a "Wow!" response from people when they see it on the computer monitor or in a print. It's not how the scene actually appeared to the human eye. Part of the popularity of digital cameras is that it gives reality a little boost. In these modern media-driven times of ours, we like our reality served in a souped-up fashion.

Some digital photographers are rebelling against the jpeg and the factory-set processing of reality. They are working with the raw image recorded by the camera's sensor. They want to return to the reality as the camera originally recorded it and massage that image according to their own preferences. Perhaps they want to recreate the scene as the eye actually saw it, or perhaps they want to reconstruct reality according to their own vision.

Might this transition from factory-set images to images managed by the individual say something about how we are changing in our attitudes about the realities created in cyberspace?

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Online Reality Testing

As I've been learning more about Photoshop, I've developed some skill in editing images to the aesthetic version of reality that I prefer. I recently showed my wife a shot of her at the beach in which I removed a person in the background who disrupted the composition, and added in a seagull from another shot. It was difficult to tell that the image had been altered. "I'll never automatically believe any photograph again," she commented.

For a quite a while now the media has had many tools for altering reality. But the issue of what is real and what is fiction seems to be blossoming in our contemporary culture - as evident, for example, in the current fascination for "reality" TV.

Cyberspace adds even more fuel to the fires of questionable realities. All sorts of reality-bended images, games, and websites proliferate online. Even in seemingly normal text-based interactions with people, we never know for sure if others are presenting themselves as they really are, or in some fictionalized and perhaps (in their mind) idealized way.

Life on the Internet also highlights the questionable veracity of information. They say you can find anything online, but is a particular web site giving you the accurate and therefore real answer to your query? Will other sites confirm that information, or say something quite different? Post any question to an active discussion group and you may get dozens of replies stating all sorts of facts and opinions, often contradictory facts and opinions. Who is offering the "right" information? Can you even tell the difference between fact and opinion?

And so I'm wondering, if our lives in cyberspace immerse us, on a daily basis, in a sea that embodies all shades of truth, are we getting any smarter in discerning fact from fiction? As we swim through all sorts of real and imaginary encounters, are our powers of reality testing improving?