The Medium Is The Extra Large

I’m applying for some college courses. After I fill out the online form and pay my money, one springs me with a surprise: They also want an idea for a “digital media project”. Huh. If I had an idea for digital media project I wouldn’t be applying for college.

So I’m staring at this, trying to figure out what they mean. What is a digital medium anyway. Someone who signs seances?

OK, seriously. Seriouslish. A medium is any means of communication more complicated than direct conversation. A telegraph, a town crier, a tombstone, a talking drum, a cardboard tube if sufficiently long. If you’re speaking through it, it’s a medium, and so the vast majority of human communication is via some medium or another.

What is digital? People use the word to mean “Things on the Internet and… stuff”, but it’s really anything that can be encoded as numbers. An analogue recording is a model of one physical thing (say a sound) made in another physical thing (say a groove), and so a copy of an analogue recording is a model of a model. Digital recording models the physical thing purely as an abstract number, which is why it can be copied forever without any loss of detail. That’s a huge boost in efficiency, so not only is most music and television digital now, but digital technologies also play vital roles in apparently analogue media like newspapers and radio. Really, a better question is what isn’t digital media now.

Which gives me my idea. What, indeed, has yet to be made digital? I should make some outrageous proposal to digitise a thing that everybody thinks of as quintessentially analogue. A digital… cloud? No that’s already a thing. A digital aeroplane! What could be less like a string of numbers than a solid object flying through the air?

Except, even planes are digital already. The joystick connects to a computer now, not to the wings and tail. It’s like they’re playing a flight simulation game and the game is flying the plane. But they’re in the plane, so they’re in the game… All a little head-wrecking when you think about it.

So I turn my attention to that third word. What constitutes a “project”? Any plan of action, really. That being the case I have a number of digital media projects lined up – first thing tomorrow morning in fact. Turning off the digital alarm on my phone and checking my digital email. Getting up and turning on the digital TV. Seen this way, pretty much my whole life is a digital media project.

Ladies and gentlemen of the admissions committee, I submit: Myself.

My First Failed Career

Still not quite finished with that attic, would you believe. Right now I’m cleaning and repacking my old darkroom equipment. Not sure why. Did anything ever become so suddenly and so profoundly obsolete?

Maybe one day it’ll be retro-chic to take analogue pictures. After all, it had so many aspects you just don’t get with digital processing. Like handling poisonous chemicals in the dark. The gear seems OK, mostly. A few negatives chewn¹ by rats who apparently thought film was still made out of cellulose. No harm really, they were of a band I’d covered for a magazine in about 1984. Goth, but with lingering traces of New Romantic. Robert Smith Hair and Simon Le Bon pants. What I’m saying here basically is that the tooth-marks of rats have improved these images.

I wanted to be a photographer for several years. Right up until the day in fact that I finally understood it was real work. You’re running around with a box that has about fifteen knobs on it, trying to capture the moment. Set one wrong, and you lose. This is stressful.

And the costs! The film costs money, the developing costs more money. The printing costs really fantastic amounts of money. Eventually I did my own developing and printing, but it didn’t save much and it was even more hard work – especially as I’d had to settle for the cheapest, crappiest equipment going. This LPL 3301D enlarger didn’t even cast an even light, which is really the least you should expect. Possibly the worst thing ever made in Japan.

I don’t think of myself as a photographer any more, yet ironically I take far more pictures these days. Because I can. Since my camera turned into a phone the cost has become too small even to quantify – plus I actually have it when I see something worth photographing. And whether doing it more has improved my eye or just the odds, I think I get better results. Take that one up at the top there, from last April. That’s closer to being a good photograph than anything I ever took with a proper roll film SLR.

This is a new golden age of photography. And it happened so fast. Imagine if I’d appeared in my darkroom and said to my younger self “Some day soon you’ll take better pictures with a telephone.”

Actually I did, but at the time I just put it down to the chemicals.

  1. I’m quite convinced it’s a word.