Past Predictions of the Future Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

One of the blogs that I regularly read is Copyblogger, which provides a lot of great information and insights into content marketing.  This past week, Brian Clark wrote a post entitled,  The Future of Content Marketing.   He writes:

“A bunch of really smart people got together in 1880 to predict the future, according to Jeff Stibel in his intriguing book Breakpoint. These experts were called on to predict how the rapidly growing Gotham would manage into the next century and beyond.

The prognosis was not positive.

NYC was a major source of American innovation in 1880. Skyscrapers, subways, stock exchanges — and it was doubling in size every 10 years. abb36e44-0c30-4a09-9279-0cd3c3fefa9b-A01867The experts were concerned by this growth, because they projected by 1980, you’d need six million horses to transport all the people who would live there.”

Folks were predicting the future of New York City, looking at it through the eyes of what was technologically possible then.  They were more concerned about all the horses and the “crap” that would be produced, than they were about greenhouse gases, because nobody knew what that was.

When I re-ran a blog post How Motion is Changing the Future of Photography, I used a similar analogy, that Ray Kurzweil had given when I heard him speak at NAB.  Ray said that, at the turn of the century (the beginning of the 1900’s), if you thought of yourself as being in the “horse and buggy business”, you were doomed to fail because of advent of the automobile.  But if you saw yourself in the “transportation business”, you thrived, no doubt because you broadened your view to include the automobile.  In my blog, I compared that analogy to what is happening in the still photography business, as the mediums of still imagery and video converge.  I received a lot of responses from that post, mostly from people who argued that still photographs would always be around. I don’t disagree with them.  I do think there will still be still images in the future – however, I think the still photography business will drastically change from how it is now.

Interestingly enough, every year I’m asked to bid on a still photography assignment for a tourism client.  Yesterday, I received the bid packet and there was a profound change.  They were not asking for a quote for still photography.  They were asking for a quote for video – and not just video – but video shot on a RED camera so that they could pull frame grabs from the footage and use those “still images” in their ads.  Now, that’s a game changer.

There’s always a danger in predicting the future and that’s because we tend to use and be influenced by the information and the knowledge that we have now – in the present.  What I’ve learned in my many years on this Earth is that the future will be nothing like how we imagine it will be.   I know that because what I imagined the future to be, some 35 years ago when I set out to make a career as a still photographer, was very limited in terms of how technology has changed things.

The human need to create will continue to mold a future that is way beyond what most of us could ever imagine.

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How Motion is Changing the Future of Photography

Mid-19th century "Brady stand" photo...
Mid-19th century “Brady stand” photo model’s armrest table (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years ago I heard visionary Ray Kurzweil speak at NAB (National Association of Broadcasting).  He was talking about the exponential rise of technology and how that would profoundly change people’s lives – and was.  His focus and predictions were mostly related to the advances we’ll see in medicine, but he relayed an analogy that has stuck with me.  He said:  (and I’ll paraphrase) that if you were in the horse and buggy industry at the turn of the century and thought of yourself as someone who sold buggies and whips, you most likely would  have gone out of business.  But if you were in the horse and buggy business and thought of yourself in the transportation business you most likely would have adapted, recognized that the future of transportation was in motor transport – and thrived.

The thing is, the ones who adapted early on – before the majority did – were the ones who made fortunes.  The ones, who waited until everyone embraced the automobile, either struggled to keep pace with the competition or died out.  I think we are at a tipping point as far as the future of the still photography business.  If we continue to think of still photography and motion as being two separate entities in the business of visual communications, it will be our demise.

Change never happens overnight.  Change is slow.  No one gets to be 400 lbs overnight; it’s a slow process.  But once it happens, it’s really hard to get back on track.  The changes that are taking place in the way we communicate are monumental, unlike any changes in the past.  I used to shoot a lot of annual reports, but not so many anymore.  I used to make a large portion of my income from the licensing of my stock images, but that income has dropped significantly because everyone has a camera and the supply of images is more than the demand.

I’m not an alarmist in predicting this change and in fact for someone my age who is on the tail end of his or her career, I wouldn’t be alarmed at all.  However, if I were just starting out in photography or even in my late 40’s or early 50’s and had another 20 + years ahead of me, I would not be complacent.

Some things still photographers should be thinking about:

  • Understand that there will probably not be a divide between the still photography and motion businesses.  This is really hard to envision because we tend to see things, by looking at the future in terms of the knowledge that we have on hand today.  But with motion cameras able to shoot 96 frames a second, and each frame being good enough to pull out and used as a still image, the changes for still photographers will be profound.
  • The concerns are not like those that a still photographer has had to face in the past, like when digital replaced film or when one needed to reinvent themselves as their markets changed. (For example when car shooters were phased out by CGI artists)  Shooting motion is a different mindset all together.  It also has profound differences in the way you run your business. While a still photographer of today, may find opportunities to shoot motion for their existing still clients, that too is rapidly changing.   I don’t think this will be an option much longer for still photographers. I think that motion shooters will be shooting motion and in the process creating stills as opposed to still photographers providing the motion content and the stills.  Just like a professional still photographer distinguishes his or herself from an amateur photographer who has an expensive camera, so do motion shooters distinguish themselves from the still photographer who seems to have little regard for the craft and knowledge of motion and thinks they will “just” start shooting motion when the time comes. It’s not going to be “just” that simple, especially if you’re late to the game.
  • Understand that technology affects everything and will continue to do so.  You may think  in terms of what’s possible today and that it would be incredibly labor intensive to go through tens of thousands of motion frames to pull out still images. But advances in technology will change that as well in the future. Technology affects everything.   Realize that software is changing too and that the edit process for pulling out frames will be easier and more streamlined in the future.  In fact, an editor’s job description will change greatly and that may be a job that is in high demand in the future. Even now, just do a quick search on LinkedIn and you’ll see that while there are very few job listings for still photographers, there’s a lot of demand for video editors.

Bottom line – start recognizing that photography and video are not separate businesses any longer.  Start understanding that will have an affect on the  future of the still photography business especially in terms of licensing, because traditionally motion camera operators work under work for hire agreements.  While still images won’t go away, that doesn’t mean that still photographers will be creating them in the future.

Tools of Revolutionary Change Are In Everybody’s Hands

I heard Ray Kurzweil speak yesterday at the NAB conference. His keynote address was titled: Acceleration of Technology in the 21st Century and simply put, I was knocked out by his insights and clarity on our changing world. The Wall Street Journal describes Kurzweil as the “restless genius” and Ray has been included in PBS’ list of “16 revolutionaries who made America”, along with inventors of the past two centuries.

To hear people like Ray Kurzweil speak, is exactly why I attend the NAB conference every year. Sure, it’s fun(and overwhelming) to walk the show floor and see the latest and greatest tech tools and toys, but my focus is always on listening to and soaking up whatever bits of insights I can from visionaries like Kurzweil.

In speaking about information technology and its affect on us all, Ray stated “There’s no way to establish the same business model and social contract and protect intellectual property if the public doesn’t embrace and respect it”.  Just look at what happened in the early days of shifting from analog to digital, and how the recording industry reacted when it became easy to “share” music electronically. When they tried to hold onto their old business model and along with that bullied the “public” – it pretty much blew up in their face.

We all should have learned from that. But if you look back to when photography went from the analog to the digital world – many photographers made that same mistake with their clients. Ray goes on to say that “technology progresses in an exponential manner and if you measure the underlying trends in technology – it’s predictable”. “Our intuition is linear”. What that means is that this paradigm shift in information technology is only going to accelerate.

He went on to say that “once things become based on information technology, they progress exponentially”. This is happening right now in the world of healthcare and medicine. As it too becomes based more on information technology as far as research and development, it’s not hit and miss or trial and error anymore.

Information technology is democratizing our world. One could say that this is a prime reason for political systems like the old USSR to collapse. It’s hard to control a country’s people when they are open to information. ” The tools of revolutionary change are in everybody’s hands”. Kurzweil cites the example of the Chinese and Google. He says, “When you limit your own success like the Chinese with Google, ultimately you will strangle yourself”.

So what can photographers and other creative types get out of all this? We must recognize that if we base our business model on our gadgets and our tools – we will limit our own success or worse yet create our own demise because the tools of disruptive change are in everybody’s hands. But if we understand that and build a business model that is not based solely on technology but on our vision and it’s perceived as “fair” to our clients and the public – then we will thrive. We need to open our eyes and adjust as to how we distribute our intellectual content.

I’ll leave you with a simple analogy that Ray cites: In the early 1900’s if you saw yourself in the horse and buggy business, you should have been concerned. But if you saw yourself in the transportation business, then you saw opportunity as the automobile changed that paradigm. So, if you see yourself and define yourself by what camera you shoot with – you’re in big trouble as technology races forward. But if you see yourself as a visual communicator and embrace the opportunities made possible by technology – then you’ll survive and thrive.

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