A short essay, written on the request of Edições Membrana, about the ever-growing impact of technology upon our experience of reality. I relate a transformation on our perception of time caused by the clock in the 19th century, to the one operated by photography in space in the 20th century; as a way of pointing out the paradoxical place that machines occupy in Western societies: the more present they are, the less perceptible they become. But, once placed installed in our pockets, faces, or screens, they work as filters (properly invisible), replacing a concrete, qualitative, heterogeneous nature by its double, an abstract, quantifiable, homogeneous second nature, ready to be consumed, exchanged and accumulated. Just like money.
Source > Publication Edições Membrana, São Paulo, 2021
It is interesting to consider that the first mechanical clock was conceived from one of the most primitive machines ever built: the watermill. It was in 11th century China, where the polymath Sū Sòng had the idea of using the wheel-turning power of the stream not to mill grains, but to measure the passing of time, which elapsed gradually as the water filled the blades.
Despite the simplicity of the mechanism, one finds therein a rather complex idea of time. On the one hand, unlike the ancient sundials, this clock had the advantage of keeping a constant flow throughout the 24 hours. On the other hand, this very continuity also enabled the subdivision of each blade into successive individual units which, according to their volume, could be isolated and counted.
More than it is interesting, it is symptomatic that it had happened this way, for such constructive intuition brings forward the radical transformation which the machines will, at a later instance, instil in our perception of time. Before the Western Industrial Revolution, those were exceptions in a world essentially governed by tools. What changes in their respect, is the kind of driving force they employ: it is no longer the human force or animal labour that moves the mechanism, but a natural force, stemming from water, wind, the sun, combustion, vapour, and so on.
This revolution is not only energetic, but functional. Apparently, judging from the results, the machine seems to still serve the purposes of man: in the end of the day, the grain was milled - and better yet, without the smallest effort in the operation of a tool. However, conceptually, this effortlessness changes everything, particularly where man stands in the production process. Whereas once the tools were the extension of a man’s hand, the machine now becomes his replacement, capable of independently operating its own tools.
This is what Marx points out in Book 1 from The Capital, in the chapter entitled ‘Machinery and the Modern Industry’: «The machine, which is the starting-point of the industrial revolution, supersedes the workman who handles a single tool, by a mechanism operating with a number of similar tools, and set in motion by a single motive power, whatever the form of that power may be»(1).
For that reason, one must understand what the automatic character of the machine entails: in order for it to work “independently", an operator needs to carry out some necessary actions, or at least monitor its performance. The machinery possesses a sophisticated (and expensive) mechanism that can only handle so much energy - a little more or a little less than the ideal amount and it will break. And that is a problem. Conversely, man becomes increasingly devalued and easily replaceable by a similar one. Or a woman. Or a child.
But it was not just the worker which became thus indifferent and replaceable – almost an automaton —, it was time of work itself. If this was then measured by the duration of specific tasks (milking a cow, tanning the leather, the harvesting seasons) – it is now being determined by the abstract units on a clock’s face: hours, minutes and seconds.
Strictly, it no longer mattered whether the worker carried out task A or B (those positions were interchangeable), the only concern was that he did not waste his boss’s time. Being that the only thing he had left to sell was his life time, his boss ultimately, acquired it. In fact, when time becomes exchange currency, one must recognise – as E. P. Thompson puts it, in Customs in Common, that “time […] is not passed, but spent”(2).
The introduction of clocks in factories was intended, not only to synchronise the production chain, increasingly more complex and mechanised, but also to act as a form of social control over the workers, under the authority of the new “time-currency”. It’s no coincidence that still in the early 19th century, popular uprisings were targeted at the clock, showing the worker’s perception of the object as an even greater source of oppression than the rest of the machinery. Nevertheless, the strategy gradually reversed in successive efforts to reduce the weekly working hours, the clock began to be used in favour of social demands. Those hands started to tell the objective difference that existed, at least at that time, between the time for work and the time for rest.
At that point, the abstract time of clock had become natural. And this was only possible because the device became cheaper, more popular and above all, smaller and smaller. As a portable instrument, it paved its way into people’s homes, and later, in men’s pockets; disappearing from sight to become omnipresent.
A similar feat happened to the photographic camera, invented in the final decades of the First Industrial Revolution. When Louis Daguerre announced his method to the world in 1839, he characterised it in his text “The Daguerreotype” primarily by its practicality: “for the technical means are simple, and require no special knowledge to be used. Only care and a little practice is needed to succeed perfectly”(3).
As it is known, the attributed paternity of photography to Daguerre is rather political – a government representative convinced the French State to acquire thispatent specifically —, but also speaks volumes about the nature of the invention: deep down, creating a product was more important that producing images.
For inventors such as Daguerre, finding a way to capture Nature’s transient images in the interior of a dark camera did not suffice. It was necessary to ensure that the procedure would be stable, relatively simple and economically viable. And, in the end, his method was indeed objectively simpler than that of his former trading partner, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who had obtained the first photograph more than a decade earlier.
This entrepreneurial spirit gained its utmost expression with George Eastman, founder of Kodak, whose most famous slogan was “you push the button, we do the rest”. Unlike the other available devices in 1888, which were expensive, hefty and difficult to handle; his proposal consisted of a closed box, easy to transport and to use, complete with a one-hundred sheets film roll and a fixed focus sensor which could not be adjusted.
His product was not made for those with the means to purchase an extravagant piece of equipment, or the free time necessary to “artistic” experimentations, but to each and every man. Behind this initiative for the democratisation of images, was also a commercial strategy which would become a case study: essentially, Eastman understood that it was worthwhile to provide simples (and cheaper) devices to, in turn, profit from spare parts and additional services.
With the cost US$ 1, his camera was in a way selling the company’s real innovation: a removable roll of film, which had to be developed in a Kodak lab. In doing so, a new market was created, which was both highly lucrative and loyal, made up of amateur users who needed not know the first thing about their equipment, and for that very reason, depended entirely on their supplier.
Thus, what had been announced as a new form of autonomy became, paradoxically, a new form of dependency. An economic one, surely, but also an existential one; for Eastman did not only respond to a genuine desire from the public – keeping a visual memento of their life –, but he also actively worked to make this some sort of inalienable right. As a result, the possibility of exercising such photographic rights over the world took on the name of a private company: it was the “Kodak Moment”.
Advertising played an essential part in the creation of a demand which was perceived by the consumers as something coming from the purest, most natural, spontaneous and immediate desire. Through adverts which were put out for decades on end, the very word “Kodak” — chosen for the way it sounds, and the letter “K” with its modern appearance – would become one with the photographic act itself. More than alluding to the camera and the film which were objectively for sale, Eastman managed to make his company into an English verb: “Kodak as you go”, read the advert.
The miniaturisation of the camera was also instrumental in the process of naturalisation of technique. When they started fitting into a coat’s pocket, they became an invisible extension of the user’s body – a kind of mechanical prosthetic, but which was felt as something organic. Thus, taking photographs was no longer a random activity, a luxury hobby, but an activity intrinsic to everyday life: one eats, works, has a family, and all these things must be photographed. Otherwise, they never happened.
In her collected essays On Photography, Susan Sontag mentions the appearance, on the 20th century, of a “photographic vision” which would do away with the camera itself. So much do we consume images, she says, in postcards, magazines, and (nowadays) screens; that we learned to see the world photographically. This is a new visual code which redefines “our notions of what is worth looking at and at what we have a right to observe”(4).
This is no innocent matter. The logic of photographic “framing” destroys the appearance of nature’s unity, typical of the classical age, shredding reality in a myriad of visual atoms. Photography, she says, does not only establishes that the modern world is fragmented, fractured, disarticulate and disconnected; it extrapolates this state of fragmentation.
Far from their original contexts, each of these fragments of world takes on the role of a new temporary unity. Yet, unlike the classical image of nature, photographs are no longer transparent but essentially opaque, abstract, loose pieces of a bigger unit which is always missing. Thus, an alternative version of nature overcomes reality, made up from the speculative correlation of all these images without context.
It is speculative because this new experience of the ‘real’ exceeds the concrete experience of any individual. In addition to their own experiences, one also has to deal with different people’s life fragments, including those from different eras. Not only is the sum of the parts always greater than the whole, but the order of these elements is also indifferent. Sontag concludes: “In a world ruled by photographic images, all the borders (‘framing’) seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything”(5).
In brief, the photographic camera seems to do to space what the mechanical clock had done to time. Reality is fragmented in equal and interchangeable units, just as time had been fragmented into abstract and replaceable intervals. In both cases, the reference to the world of experience remains nothing but a mirage. The photographic images no longer correspond directly to what they intend to show, just as the subdivisions of the clock have long since coincided with an exact fraction of the Sun’s apparent course.
If the 19th century saw the clock transform time into money, the 20th century saw photography capitalise on space. Jonathan Crary, in Techniques of the Observer, proposed a parallel between images and money: "[Both] are magical forms which establish a new set of abstract relations between individuals and things, and impose those relations as the real"(6).
It makes sense: money is, indeed, the impersonal measure of all things, mass-produced and free-flowing without corresponding directly to its physical references. But the essential point of the parallel resides in the idea of exchange: it matters not that they fail to correspond to reality, so long as they correspond to one-another. Photography, he claims, has created a universal measure among all visible things which, turned into images, can now be isolated, quantified and accumulated endlessly.
Yet it’s equally important that these relations are considered not as abstract, but as perfectly concrete. This is the “magical” power of capitalism, which allows itself to come forward not as historical and social construct, but as a seemingly natural response to our deepest desires.
This very idea appeared in Sontag, who proposed a certain “equivocal magic of the photographic image”. Yet his feature is not exclusive to the photographic camera; it relates to what it shares with all the other machines, particularly with the clock.
By taking their energy source directly from nature, dismissing all human action, these machines may appear as an extension of nature itself. What is better; they are faster and more practical: everything that had previously happened spontaneously, now does so instantly, thus giving us the impression of an enchanted world, in which one can simply “push the button” for everything to happen "by itself".
Finally, a second Nature, where we could eventually rest. Which is patently false: he who sleeps is the owner of the machine, never he who operates it. But the promise is undoubtedly seductive and, therefore, remains alive ever since the Greek epigrammatist Antipater of Thessalonica composed, in 85 BCE, perhaps the first ever advertising campaign of all History — not fortuitously, for a machine, the watermill:
"Hold back your hands from the mill, O maids of the grindstone; slumber longer, e’en though the crowing of cocks announces the morning. Demeter’s ordered there nymphs to performs your hands’ former labours. Down on the top of the wheel, the spirits of the water are leaping, turning the axle and with the spokes of the wheel that is whirling therewith spinning the heavy and hollow Nisyrian millstones"(7).