In New York City, fear grew of a rising epidemic: a stalker who wandered the streets invading the privacy of upstanding citizens, scrutinizing their ordinary steps, and creating a scandalizing record of everyday life. It was 1884 and George Eastman, of eventual Kodak fame, had invented a process to mass-produce dry plates for photographs; the day was arriving when any aspiring shutterbug could take a picture.
The “camera lunatics,” as their unwitting subjects dubbed them in panicked letters to the editor, were endangering the public sphere. A New York Times story declared them responsible for the overcrowding of “lunatic asylums.” The article’s advice for repelling them is not unlike a Hollywood celebrity’s tactic in 2012: Take a brick and smash the camera.
These days, that would require a lot of bricks. Last year, one billion mobile phones with cameras were sold around the world; it’s estimated that more than one-third of the earth’s population owns a digital camera. Every two minutes, they snap as many photos as the whole of humanity took in the 1800s, according to calculations by the photo storing site 1000memories. All the pictures ever taken add up to about 3.5 trillion shots, endless digital slideshows of cooing babies and fluffy kittens, to say nothing of the cute top someone saw at Forever 21 and wanted to get their Facebook friends’ opinions about.
And that math was done way back in September, 2011, which might as well be 1884 in internet years. Facebook’s own most recent stats say that 300 million photos were uploaded per day to the social-media site in the three months ending on March 31, even before June’s prime picture season of proms, dance recitals, graduation ceremonies (kindergarten to university), post-exam parties and weddings. (Also, the tech analyst company, Infotrends, estimates that the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations would produce an additional 1.3 billion photos.)
That’s not counting the many billions of images hosted by Flickr or tweeted on Twitter, with the unspoken understanding that a picture of three human beings in stock pose (heads together, arms looped, smiles synchronized) will bounce from one digital space to another, until its context fades like an old print in a shoebox. But not for long: Facebook this week announced the purchase of facial-recognition software. Soon no goofy grin shall go unnamed.
So if the good people of 1884 New York thought they had a camera epidemic on their hands, the modern world has shown them – and ourselves, in pixelized glory – a billion times over. Even the concerns about how shutterbugging affects mental health persist: These days we fret particularly about anxiety – produced from not being in enough pictures or being in the wrong ones – and narcissism, the inevitable byproduct of a culture that insatiably records every moment as if it’s Oscar-worthy.
Of course, it’s a vice of necessity in a way: To participate in Facebook you have to show your face, the more often the better. But whether one is a grudging participant or a vain poseur, the deeper risk may be that the medium eclipses the moment.
While David McCullough, Jr. – the Massachusetts English teacher who has lit up the Internet with his “You’re Not Special” commencement speech – doesn’t explicitly chide his audience for its picture-taking obsession, he does say: “Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”
This month, the paparazzi parents will be out in droves, jockeying for the best shot of the family rock star, angling their video cameras above rows of heads and cursing waning battery lights. (The truly invested mother and fathers arrive hunchbacked with SLR cameras and tripods and lenses; anyone, in 2012, can pull her iPhone from her pocket.)
Taking pictures at an event has become the event. If you are not snapping shots, you are probably worrying about what you are missing, and missing what you’re supposed to be watching.