Madhavan P

Digital Dark Age Ahead


‘Memory’ is a fundamental cognitive process which is involved in virtually all important cognitive functions, such as reasoning, perception, problem solving, and speech[1]; it is through it that we retain information and reconstruct past experiences, usually for present purposes or future record. Memory is one of the most important ways by which our histories animate our current actions and experiences. Most notably, the human ability to conjure up long-gone but specific episodes of our lives is both familiar and puzzling, and is a key aspect of personal identity. Memory seems to be a source of knowledge. We remember events which really happened, so memory is unlike pure imagination. [2]

Henri-Louis Bergson, French philosopher, in his book Matter and Memory distinguishes two different forms of memory. Memories concerning habitude, replaying and repeating past action, not strictly recognized as representing the past, but utilizing it for the purpose of present action. This kind of memory is automatic, inscribed within the body, and serving a utilitarian purpose.[3] This is often referred as “Working Memory” and is a system for temporarily storing and managing the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks.

The other memory, referred as “Pure Memory” or “True Memory” by Henri-Louis Bergson, registers the past in the form of “image-remembrance”, representing the past, recognized as such.[4] Pure memory, remembering is a core instance of the general, flexible human capacity to think about events and experiences which are not present, so that mental life isn’t entirely determined by the current environment and the immediate needs of the organism. This is a Long-term memory storing unlimited amount of information almost indefinitely.

Memory is involved in processing vast amounts of information. This information takes many different forms, e.g. images, sounds or meanings. For psychologists the term memory covers three important aspects of information processing like Memory Encoding, Storage and retrieval. When information comes into our memory system (from sensory input), it is changed into a form that the system can cope with, so that it can be stored. The sensory inputs are encoded into visual, acoustics and semantic processing which is broadly called Memory Encoding.

The second stage is where the information is stored, it is divided into two based on how long the memory lasts for (duration), how much can be stored at any time (capacity) and on the basis of its kind, the information is classified as short term or long term memory. The way we store information affects the way it is retrieved.  Recall or retrieval of memory refers to the subsequent re-accessing of events or information from the past, which have been previously encoded and stored in the brain. In common parlance, it is known as remembering.[5]

The information which is fed through the sensory organs to the brain which retains a great deal of that date, accessing or retraining that data is a simulated and reconstructed reality delivered from unconscious and not from the  sense organs, however the data is presented to believe that it is a live feed from the sense organs.[6]

Memories of experiences connect with one another and they are the basis of who we are as individuals; these are called autobiographical memories which rely on a brain region called the hippocampus (horseshoe shaped elongated ridges on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain, responsible for processing of long term memory and emotional responses. If the hippocampus were to be taken out of brain, person would be stuck in time and memories of new experiences would rapidly fade away. The hippocampus functions to create a seamless story of the self). [7]

With advancement of science and technology human replaced this autobiographical memories with external technologies for recording information, its storage and retrieval; these were wax tablets, painting, printing, camera, tape recorder, computer etc. In this, Photography is a most important innovation apart from printing press and vinyl record. Photography is a development marvel which records, preserves and brings back memories with accurately depicting reality of the bygone times.

A picture can trigger a buried memory and recall a precise moment in time much more rapidly than words. Neuroscientists have known for many years that humans have an extraordinary ability to encode pictures. Brains are so efficient at storing the ‘essence’ of a picture, capturing not just the subject but specific visual qualities.

The basis of autobiographical memory is formed of what happened, where it happened and when it happened. Similarly, the photographs can store information of whatwhere and when. In this regard, a photograph is very much like a memory of a life event. Photography is information about past light that is perceived in present time. Similarly, memories are the effects of past experiences on present self. Photographs can serve as memory storage and when viewed, can activate and trigger memory recall.

To look at a photograph is to look at the time which no longer exists. Created photographs bring more reliability as tracers of the past than the mechanisms in our brains. As objects, photographs literally give us something to hold on to. It is like holding the memory or the era that has passed away.

Since 1826, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created the “First Photograph,” more than 150 different photographic processes have been invented, used, abandoned and replaced by faster, less expensive and/or more convenient processes.

These alternative photographic processes like Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, and Tintypes[8], in modern times Polaroid created emotions as these types of photographs were not just taken at the same place of the object or person in the image but the very printing materials were also in the same place and held the same light, air and temperature; The metal plate images held the same light that reflected from the person or place. This in case of Polaroid it was quite possible that the person it shows actually looked at the photograph along with the photographer.

Ultimately, the photographic processes came about from a series of refinements and improvements in the first 20 years. In 1884 George Eastman, of Rochester, New York, developed dry gel on paper, or film, to replace the photographic plate so that a photographer no longer needed to carry boxes of plates and toxic chemicals around. In July 1888 Eastman’s Kodak camera went on the market with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest”. Now anyone could take a photograph and leave the complex parts of the process to others, and photography became available for the mass-market in 1901 with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie.

With this development in photography negative film, relationship and memory which existed with alternative photography processes got removed. Negative became an intermediate between the reality and memory; while the negatives belonged to the place where photograph was taken, the final images were printed in Darkrooms at different places. Anonymity got introduced into photography. 

Still, printed photographs became an artifact of memory, history or nostalgia; it is not only the content of the photographs that tells the story from the memory of the viewer but the object also has a considerable story to share. The printed photographs has numerous objective qualities, these do not include those that make it a vessel of memory, a bearer of nostalgia or a possessor of sentimental value. These qualities do not exist in the object. Rather, they are a relational property between the person and the object.

In this analogue age, photography was first and foremost a means for autobiographical remembering, all most all photographs taken are developed and printed and stacked in photo albums or frames or shoe boxes. They are viewed and regarded as most reliable objects to recall and cherish memories with great care. Photography functioned as a tool for identity formation and as a means for communication, but was always rated secondary to its prime purpose of memory[9].

Photography is the science, art, application and practice of creating images by recording light. Since its invention photography traditionally involved the chemical reaction of photosensitive materials. Rapid development of technology in 20th century lead to the advancement, that created systems of image digitization by dividing an image into dots or pixels, giving each dot a value, and then storing these values in sequence in a solid-state storage in computer systems. Computers reconstruct the digital image by reading the dot values and displaying them on a computer screen.

This big evolution in photography has completely erased physicality and associated memory of photography – there is no negative, there is no physicality of image, and the digital image exists in a way that is far removed from anything visual.

Digital photography has become a tool for communication, experience and identity formation, moving away from their former prime function as a memory tool[10]. The rise of digital photography and imaging has transformed the landscape of visual communication and culture. Events, activities, moments, objects, and people are ‘captured’ and distributed as images on an unprecedented scale. Many of these are shared publicly; some remain private, others become intellectual property, and some have the potential to shape global events.[11]

The digital image exists like a fantasy, they’re everywhere from smartphones, tablets, to computers; taking photographs seems no longer a primary act of memory or heritage recording but has increasingly become a tool for an individual’s identity and communication as the preferred idiom of a new generation.

The growth in the number of photos taken each year is exponential: It has nearly tripled since 2010 and is projected to grow to 1.3 trillion by 2017. The rapid proliferation of smart phones is mostly to blame. Unlike 40 percent of photographs which were taken in 2010 using some kind of a phone, the number has increased to 75 percent in 2016. Full-fledged digital cameras now represent only 20 percent of the tally, and are expected to drop to just 13 percent by 2017[12]. This year around 3.94 trillion digital photos will be stored on hard drives, pendrives, phones, computers, and cloud in different formats worldwide.

It is approximately estimated that less that 1 out of 100,000 photographs taken today actually ends up being a printed photograph[13]. In almost all scenarios and images that are taken through digital photography are stored without any cataloguing or archiving hence it becomes a herculean task to locate and retrieve them. 

Image overload, created due to viewing images all over the place creates heightened anxiety to memory impairment and hinges on feeling visually saturated – the sense is caused because there’s so much visual material to see that remembering an individual photograph becomes nearly impossible.

Taking a photograph is as easy as pointing and shooting, providing an external memory of one’s experiences. It is estimated that people took more than 3 billion photos in 2012 and that 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook each day. To what extent does capturing one’s life events with a camera shape what one subsequently remembers? After the extensive research, Linda A. Henkel of Department of Psychology, Fairfield University, writes in her paper that People report that they take photographs and record videos as a way to remember events in their lives[14]. On the one hand, photographing objects could have positive effects on memory because it may focus one’s attention and hence increase the memorability of the scene. In addition, photographing an object is a more active process than observing it and research on the enactment effect has shown that people better remember actions they have performed than actions they have only thought about or observed[15].

On the other hand, taking photos may have a detrimental impact on memory. Photographing a scene may divide one’s attention, similar to when people multitask by using cell phones while driving or walking[16]. People may also pay less attention to a scene if they take photos, counting on the external device of the camera to “remember” for them, as suggested by research showing that people were less likely to remember information if they expected to have future access to it for example on an external storage device, such as a computer, or via the Internet;[17]. In this regard, taking a photo could serve as a cue to “dismiss and forget”; this phenomena Linda calls as “photo-taking-impairment effect.

Further over reliance on external devices and trusting a digital device to store and remember information on behalf of once memory creates a phenomenon called as Digital Amnesia[18].

Digital technologies offer new opportunities, but also new complexities in the everyday lives of people: with ever-expanding memory capacities, the computer is rapidly becoming a giant storage and processing facility for recording and retrieving ‘bits of life’. As more and more people begin to discover the pleasures of digital recordings and presentations, it is also adequate to acknowledge the problems that come with new technology, such as problems of handling exploding quantities of personal data [19].

Adding to this challenge of exploding storages, over the years, the storage technology has changed so fast, that many photographs taken 6-7 years ago were stored on a type of media that is no longer supported like hard drives, floppy discs, DVDs, BluRays, zip disks, thumb drives, SD cards. Hence in this digital obsolescence the cycle of memory; Memory Encoding, Digital storage is easy; retiring and digital preservation is not. Preservation means keeping the stored information cataloged, accessible, and usable on current media, which requires constant effort and expense.[20] 

Just like brain in human body, the digital storage systems do not reveal any visible data or image or memories on opening up. It is not like a water storage container which when opened spilled out real matter.

Like a dead person’s brain which is only a specimen, all these digital storage devices are bound to become an empty digital artifacts for the future. 

Digital images can be stored in online spaces which are free to use, The benefits of using a cloud-based storage system are two-fold: Viewing photos (and videos) online is easier than other methods, because they can be accessed on more than one device, and the service acts as an extra backup notwithstanding it is also a challenge to adopt to new technology and ever changing market scenarios[21]. There are many cases where services (both free and paid) have shut down. Apple shut down Aperture, Old popular blogging platforms got shut down, services like Vine, MySpace, Xanga and Posterous, Streamzoo, Kodak Gallery, Webshots, Panoramio, Trovebox, MobileMe Web Gallery disappeared[22]. It is very early to predict the future of cloud-based storage system and its viability and existence.

Even though photography may still capitalize on its primary function as a memory tool for documenting a person’s past[23], the most photographed generation will have no pictures in 10 Years[24]; the rapid evolution and proliferation of different kinds of digitalization in photography, software, storage ensures that digital obsolescence will become a problem in the future and propels the world to the Digital Dark Age.

 “Our life, our memories, our most cherished family photographs increasingly exist as bits of information – on our hard drives or in ‘the cloud’. But as technology moves on, they risk being lost in the wake of an accelerating digital revolution.”

– Vinton Gray Cerf, Father of the Internet



[3] Matter and Memory (French: Matière et mémoire, 1896) is a book by the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941)

[4] Matter and Memory (French: Matière et mémoire, 1896) is a book by the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941)


[6] Brian Roemmele, Alchemist & Metaphysician

[7]  Joshua Sarinana is a neuroscientist at MIT

[8] Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes were the first three early photographic processes to gain    widespread                               popularity.           Developed in the mid-to-late 19th century, each successive technique improved upon the others in availability, affordability, and processing speed. Despite these improvements, each process produced a unique, one-of-a kind image–the only one!

[9] Barthes, 1981[1980]; Sontag, 1973

[10] Digital photography: communication,identity, memory JOSÉ VAN DIJCK, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

[11] Ubiquitous Photography, By: Martin Hand



[14] Chalfen, R. (1998). Family photograph appreciation: Dynamics of medium, interpretation and memory. Communication & Cognition, 31, 161–178

[15] Roediger, H. L., III, & Zaromb, F. M. (2010). Memory for action. In L. Backman & L. Nyberg (Eds.), Memory, aging and the brain (pp. 24–52). New York, NY: Psychology Press

[16] Hyman, I. E., Jr., Boss, S., Wise, B. M., McKenzie, K. E., & Caggiano, J. M. (2010). Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 597–607

[17] Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333, 476–478

[18] The rise and impact of digital amnesia Digital Amnesia, Kaspersky Lab

[19] From shoebox to performative agent: the computer as personal memory machine – JOS ´E VAN DIJCK, University of Amsterdam






Image courtesy: Madhavan P.

Madhavan. P is the director and founder of Asia Photography Archive (APA), a not-for-profit pioneering initiative to preserve the photographic heritage of India and Asia.

4 comments on “Digital Dark Age Ahead

  1. Ruchita Khurana

    Very interesting article…tracing the history of photography and associated science until today. It’s nice to know another dimension of the rampant ‘shoot and save’, our generation is so much into.

  2. Dinesh Gulati

    Wow. Very detailed, informative and interesting article. It covered all aspects of Photography and was well balanced. Keep writing such brilliant stuff.

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