Monday, January 27, 2014

The sense of snapshots (2)

David Riesman distinguished three types of man in history, depending on what guided the behaviour: the tradition-directed man, the inner-directed man and the other-directed man (see my blog dated April 29, 2013). His theory sounds plausible, but is it true? I haven’t heard of any investigation that has tested it, but maybe that is my fault, and maybe the theory has been tested. Anyway, after the Middle Ages (characterised by tradition-directness) there were many outstanding people that rowed against the main current of the accepted traditional opinions of the time. Galileo (who has been condemned for it), Descartes (who found it better to leave France for that reason, and later even the liberal Netherlands), Spinoza (who changed Amsterdam for The Hague in order to escape persecution for his beliefs) are some of the most outstanding inner-directed persons then. But what does a few names tell us? Are they really symptomatic for a changing way of orientation or were other factors involved that had nothing to do with man’s individual bearing? What speaks against the former is that by nature man is continuously looking for acceptance by others, especially by those other people who are significant for him or her. People want to be liked and loved and to belong and that makes that they avoid things that make look them deviant. This goes as far as that one does or says things against one’s better judgment or that one tends to conform one’s behaviour thinking that it is one’s own choice. And isn’t this of all time? Mobs cannot not exist without such an orientation on others and haven’t there been mobs as long as there is history?
Nowadays people want to be trendy, follow the fashion of the day, or youngsters choose a study like sociology or psychology because everybody does and because they don’t know what to do else. Okay, it often happens that people know that they do things because others do the same and they say “one ought to do that” or “it’s fashion”, but on the other hand it also happens that one thinks making an individual choice (“it’s my choice to study psychology”) while the actual reason is that studying psychology is trendy. Or take this: You are in a restaurant and you see flames coming from the kitchen. What will you do? Probably nothing when nobody else does anything (and when no one comes from the kitchen warning the guests that there is a fire). Until, too late, somebody shouts “fire” and panic breaks out. Why? Because we are conforming beings, at least most of us. If we were a little bit more individualistic, some big calamities and devastating wars in history could have been avoided. But alas, that’s just man’s nature, and maybe it has some advantages from the perspective of human development.
I think that with this in mind the snappy kind of photography that I discussed in my last blog can be understood. Remember that I was talking there about taking pictures, for instance in a museum, in order to be able to show that you have been “there” and not as a kind of reminder for yourself. Seen that way, snappy photography has nothing to do with photography in the classical sense. Let it be clear: I have nothing against snappy photography! Images are important today for many reasons and snappy photography is one way of making them. But the meaning of a snappy photo has no relation with what is on it. It is a way of expressing your belongingness, it helps you to be liked and loved. You make them because everybody does, so you “ought” to do it, too. It is one of the present ways of contact, like letters in the past, or like going to a cafe with your friends. And that’s why they are twittered and instagramed and facebooked. Photography makes the world go round. Would Daguerre have thought it?

Monday, January 20, 2014

The sense of snapshots

Bonnets in Farm Museum, Staphorst, the Netherlands: I have been there, too

In my last blog I referred to an article by Linda Henkel on the relation between taking photos and what you remember of what you have taken a photo of. I got my information on Henkel’s research from a CNN webpage with the heading “Eyes are better at mental snapshots than cameras, study suggests” (see my blog last week for the link). Actually I should have read, of course, Henkel’s original article before writing my comments, but since I am not subscribed to the journal where it has been published, I have to pay $35.00 for a download. This is a bit too much for a philosopher without an institute with a budget that supports him. The article costs even as much as two philosophical books, which can contain together fifteen or twenty of such articles. That’s why my blogs are often based on second-hand information. Then there is always the risk that what I say in my writings is not to the point. By the way, this (and not only this) shows that the academic freedom is not as real as it should be: In this case it consists in the free admittance to an article and this depends on how much money you have in your pocket (or on your bank account) or on the budget of the institute that pays your research. In other words, there is a price tag on academic freedom. I don’t want to say that it can be different in present society. I am merely stating a fact.
Therefore it may happen that my comment on Henkel’s results is not completely relevant, because it is based on secondary information, or it may be that Henkel herself has already said it. Anyway, is the essence of her research really that “Eyes are better at mental snapshots than cameras, study suggests” as it is paraphrased in the heading of the CNN webpage? Maybe it’s Henkel’s own conclusion. However, I think that the research says something different. In fact, it doesn’t talk about the influence of photographing on our memory but about present-day man. Take Henkel’s statement in the CNN article (written by Elizabeth Landau) that “People just pull out their cameras … They just don’t pay attention to what they’re even looking at, like just capturing the photo is more important than actually being there.” Wouldn’t this statement be a better paraphrase of the research? For actually the research doesn’t show a relation between photography and memory but it shows the superficiality of man today. Or rather, “superficiality” is not the right word, I think. Maybe I could better call it something like “inattentive-mindedness”. If someone visits a museum, it would be “normal”, I think, if he or she gives attention to the exposition and objects exposed. And if this person finds a certain object interesting or beautiful s/he can take a picture of it so that s/he can later call it up in the mind, for instance for remembering again what s/he saw, for looking again at some details, for telling others about it, and who knows what more. A condition of this is, I think, that s/he is interested in what s/he sees and photographs. But just this is not the reason that museum objects are often photographed. Not the object as such appears to be interesting or, otherwise, it is not that one wants to have a good picture of it (which requires attention), but just the snapshot as such; that one has been able to take it; that the photographer simply wants to show that s/he has been “there”; or that one belongs to “them” who has been there, is why the photo is taken. Not the object photographed gives the image its meaning but the relation of the photographer to his or her significant others. Then the image is not meant as a reminder of the content of the image (the object exposed), and then it is not important to give attention to this content (so the object). That’s why the object is photographed with an inattentive mind. But attention is not absent, but it is fixed elsewhere, namely on the people around you.
Do you still remember my blog on the other-directed man (dated April 29, 2013)? We saw there that this other-directed type of person that has come to the fore in the past century is someone who is “oriented by the opinions of the people around him. His conformity to society [consists of] … a sensitive attention to the expectations of contemporaries”. People find their way in society by putting out their feelers in order to know what other people expect of them, more than ever before. The inattentive way of taking pictures must be seen in this light: Photos help you to tune in to relevant others. What’s on the pictures as such need not to be important. It is this what Henkel’s article actually substantiates; not that taking pictures may impair your memory.

Monday, January 13, 2014

An extension of the mind: The photo camera

Carboard pinhole camera: not for a snapshot

More than ever before people tend to make photos of what they see and do. In 2012 even 3 billion photos were taken. And these photos don’t stay in the cameras and they aren’t kept private, for every day 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook. That’s quite a lot! Who would have thought that this would happen when 170 years ago the first photos were taken? Although these numbers are tremendous, I want to put them into perspective, for 3 billion photos taken in 2012 means that not even every second earthling has made one photo that year. Nevertheless it is impressive. Must we be glad with it? For recently I read in a philosophical periodical that photography is bad for our memory. I was shocked a bit for as most readers of these blogs will know: I like photography a lot and I spend much time on it. Therefore I wanted to know a bit more about it and I looked up the source of the message (see the link below).
The American Psychologist Linda Henkel has been taking photos all her life, which she learned from her father (like I did). She had observed that many people today just take their cameras and make snapshots without giving much attention to what they are photographing. They do it almost with an absent mind and the act of taking a photo seems to be more important than the interest for what is taken a picture of. So Henkel wondered whether taking photos had an influence on the way people remember the objects photographed. In order to investigate this question she took two groups of students and sent them to a museum. Group One had to take snapshots of the objects exposed, while Group Two simply had to look at the objects. I’ll skip the details, but when the next day Henkel asked the students to write down what they remembered of the objects seen in the museum, she “found that people performed worse on memory recognition tasks in reference objects they had photographed, compared to objects they had observed with their eyes only. Similarly, they appeared to remember fewer details about what they photographed, compared to the ones they had only seen.”
So far so good, but that’s not the way I take photos, for I seldom take snapshots and I give always much attention to how to photograph an object. Moreover, I have the impression that I just remember the things I have photographed better than the things I have not taken a picture of. Also Henkel realized that there are other ways to take photos, so in a second experiment she asked some test persons to zoom in on specific parts of the objects they photographed in the museum. Also now the result was worrying at first (anyway, I find it worrying): “Photographed objects tended to be associated with a decline in memory about them. But”, so the article continues, “here is the twist: Zooming in on one part of the object preserved participants’ memory about that entire object, not just the part on which the camera zoomed. Accuracy was about the same, regardless of whether participants just observed objects or zoomed in on individual parts.”
The latter result corresponds to my experience: I remember objects that I have photographed better than those that I have merely observed. And this is true not only for objects, but for all kinds of photographed subjects: landscapes, scenes, townscapes, people, and who knows what more. This is in keeping with Henkel’s explanation: “When you zoom in on part of an object, it’s drawing your visual attention there, but you’re also thinking about the object as a whole.” This is so because photographing attentively stimulates your brain. It intensifies the experience of what you are doing, and the more intense an experience is, the better you’ll remember it (this is true for experiences of any kind).
Yet there is more, for Henkel asked the students to write down their memories without seeing the photos they had taken. However,  after I have taken a photo, I upload it to my computer and next I decide what to do with it. I put some photos immediately in a folder and I keep other ones apart in order to photoshop them later and to upload them to my website. So I see my photos at least once after I have taken them and I see some many times. When I see them, they bring back to me the circumstances in which they were taken: the place where I was, what I was doing there, the people that were with me, and so on. As a result, for instance, I remember episodes of my holidays in which I have taken photos much better than episodes in which I have kept my camera in my case: My photos function as a kind of external memory and my camera is an extension of my mind. Just that is an important aspect of taking photos for me: A photo is not simply a material memory of what is on it, but it evokes in my mind the circumstances in which I have taken it. So, if you want to improve your remembrance of what you did, take a photo, but not a snapshot, and take it with attention.


Monday, January 06, 2014

The stage we are on (2)

Performance without an audience

The grandmaster of the analysis of social role-playing is the sociologist Erving Goffman. His most famous analysis of this phenomenon is his The presentation of self in everyday life. It’s already long ago that I read it, so actually I have a bit forgotten what Goffman wrote there, but I had underlined many passages in my copy of the book, so let me browse a bit and then give some – actually somewhat arbitrary – quotations and comments by way of illustration and support of what I have said before.
Already in the “Preface” Goffman tells us that he considers the social world as a stage: “The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance” (xi). By pasting a few passages from the “Introduction” behind each other, I want to give an idea what this theatrical performance perspective involves for Goffman: “… the individual will have to act so that he intentionally or unintentionally expresses himself, and the others will in turn have to be impressed in some way by him. … Regardless of the particular objective which the individual has in mind and of his motive for having this objective, it will be in his interest to control the conduct of the others, especially their responsive treatment of him. This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan. … [W]hen an individual projects a definition of the situation and thereby makes an implicit or explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect.” (2, 3-4, 13; italics EG]. However, sometimes things go wrong and the others have another definition of the situation than the individual. Then the latter is driven back on “defensive practices” or otherwise to “protective practices” (by which he simply supports the definition of the others, like by using tact) (13-14).
This is in a nutshell what we are doing on the stage of life in Goffman’s view. At the end of the introduction to the Presentation he calls the influencing of the others by an individual in a face-to-face interaction a “performance” and he calls these others “the audience, observers or co-participants”. (15-16) I think the third term is the best, for aren’t actually all those present on the stage “performing” in some way? (which Goffman doesn’t deny, however)The terms “audience” and “observers” suggest that the others are not involved in the interaction in some way. But since Goffman is explicitly talking about “face-to-face-interaction”, they belong all to the company of actors (although I don’t want to deny that there can be bystanders present or that there are passers-by that we can best qualify as “audience” or “observers”).
I could go on and add more quotes from Goffman’s book. But didn’t bring us what I cited above already to the essence? Nevertheless we must not forget that the actor-and-stage metaphor is more than just that: In life we are not simply players who can step out of their roles. We are not simply pretending. We are our roles. We are our pretences if not our pretensions. For as Goffman puts it “The self … is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented …” (252-3). To put it differently: The self is the dramatic effect of all our acts, actions and interactions (cf. 253). In the end that’s also true for the artist, for if it wasn’t, he couldn’t be a good performer. As the last words in Goffman’s book are: “Those who conduct face to face interaction on a theater’s stage [i.e. the actors - HbdW] must meet the key requirement of real situations; they must expressively sustain a definition of the situation: but this they do in circumstances that have facilitated their developing an apt terminology for the interactional tasks that all of us share” (255).

The quotations are from Erving Goffman, The presentation of self in everyday life, Garden City:
Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959.