In mid-July 1969, I sat spellbound before our family television for hour after hour. The Vietnam War continued…, the UK had recently severed relations with Rhodesia (largely over the issue of white supremacy). I don’t recall whether I knew it, but the Concorde had made its first test flight earlier that year. And in mid-July, I watched as two human beings set foot on the moon. The Universe seemed boundless with opportunity. Surely we would journey to Mars and beyond during my lifetime.
I woke up this morning to see that Google had produced a front page “Doodle” in honor of Louis Daguerre’s 224th birthday. While I admit to being puzzled as to the significance of his 224th birthday (why not wait for 225?), nonetheless it piqued my interest. As some readers may know, through the 80’s and 90’s I was privileged to work as a commercial photographer for many of the world’s leading high tech companies. What some may find surprising is that my interest in photography began largely as a result of a fascination with old photographs and the window they provided into a very different world.
Daguerre’s creation changed the way mankind saw the planet… not just through the introduction of the photograph, but also by changing the scope of the visual arts.
Introduced in 1839, the Daguerreotype photo process started a 20 year sequence of events that resulted in more and more simple photographic processes, and ultimately in the art of Picasso. Not bad for a chemical process that yields a fragile image that can only be viewed at an angle.
Alta Vista reigns supreme as a search engine. Yahoo dominates the directory world. AOL appears impregnable, and is still two years away from a valuation of $166 Billion dollars at the Time-Warner merger date. IBM releases a laptop with a 300 Mhz processor and a 4GB hard drive. A fast Internet connection runs at 56kbps, and 2 math geeks from Stanford file papers to incorporate Google Inc.
As a teenager, I first encountered the writings of Marshal McLuhan. His books took me on an adventure…, imagining that society was formed by its mediums of expression. People didn’t use a typewriter, they were typed. Like Joyce in Ulysses, he invented a new language to address the phenomena. Some of his language is mainstream today, although no one seems to remember where “The Global Village”, and “information surfing” came from.
McLuhan was a Canadian Professor of English Literature and communications theorist whose ideas about media and communication were innovative and controversial. A core premise was that our technology was both means and molder of communication, and accordingly shaped our culture. The content of a medium is less important that the medium itself. It is the medium that shapes us. Geronimo may have “heard” his world…, but literate man “saw” the world because typography shaped his world perception and cognition. Henry Ford could only exist because of Gutenberg.
In 1962, McLuhan wrote that “The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind”. Sounds a little bit like the world web doesn’t it?