The Devil You Know

I'm hardly the only one struggling with the hidden expenses and travails of digital. Read this recent Digital Manifesto from Editorial Photographers. The very group whom camera companies love to promote as users of their top digital equipment are, in fact, getting powerfully squeezed as a result of that equipment. Or at least by people's attitudes about it.

There are a number of factors in play here, regarding the relationship of fee structures and technology. There's plenty of polarization in camps, plenty of confusion, and (as EP members have discovered) plenty of opportunity for abuse. Perhaps not surprisingly, these occurences are not new to other fields that have been diffused with digital technology.

As Paul Strassman has become famous in Information Technology circles for pointing out, digital technology alone does not make anyone more profitable or more productive. On balance, it may even be hard to economically justify the existence of the entire computer industry, in broad terms of enhancing the overall economy. His 1997 book, The Squandered Computer, brought many of these issues into sharp focus, though its message was (at the time) drowned-out by the dot-com boom (even as his message presaged the later dot-com crash).

Strassman (and other economists) asked: what's the Return On Investment (ROI)? Where's the beef? As Nobel winner Robert Solow observed: "We see computers everywhere but not in the productivity statistics."

Sure, individuals can make money from computers. Individual companies certainly can too, e.g. Microsoft or NVIDIA. Electronic media have let more money move faster (and sometimes all in one direction) than ever before. But has the economy really grown, or has the money merely shifted from one part of the economy to another?

In some cases, computers drive New Things, and from those New Things, real economic growth can occur — wealth can genuinely be created in a way that seems to defy thermodynamics. I think computer graphics is an example, especially real-time graphics. We did not have an art form like video games before. They produce money through a new desire from consumers, not just a shift of their time from watching TV to wiring-up the PC for a round of Unreal (though there's an element of that as well).

In photography, Photoshop created a new bubble of growth, with unprecedented flexibility in imaging. It's become a household verb.

But the rest of the photo industry — cameras and film, photographers and editors — have merely swapped one set of tools for another without fundamentally changing what they do. Magazines are still on a monthly schedule, printed to the same sizes. Ad rates are still based on readership and column size, not the machines used to deliver those ads. $14 a roll for Portra is a bit steep for casual pictures of your cousin and your cat, but for a shoot with a rented studio stage, a small squad of food stylists and makeup artists along with a model who's pulling in a five-figure fee for the gig, it's nothing.

Yet somehow digital has become required because it lets the deadlines be one day tighter, time that's likely taken up not by more precise work on the images (even with live preview), but simply to allow the sales people another day for expensed lunches with their clients. The days rates don't change, the talent fees don't change, the ad rates don't change, but the patterns of flow among those dollars are shuffled and diverted. Money that once went to film manufacturers and the local pro lab now go directly to the camera makers. The cumulative costs, once incremental from job to job, are now paid up front by photographers when they purchase a new camera body. So shooters have paid for their "film," for all possible jobs ever to be shot with a given digital camera, in advance.

At the same time, publishers see that photographers are no longer sending invoices from Ektachromes-R-Us, so they cut their payments. The guys at the magazine are all loyal consumers, and they know that thanks to digital, they've replaced their $200 SureShots with $300 PowerShots and stopped buying film. Digital photography is free, right?

At a certain level, you can't blame them. It's a time of rapid change and no one spends a lot of time thinking about what's the "right" way to do things. They use their own experience as a guide, though it's experience from a different set of circumstances. Further, the photographers are all freelancers and subcontractors anyway. The publishing house was bought-out in the late 90's by a dot-com that's now strapped for cash and dag-nab-it, somebody's got to tighten a belt around here. So the publishers don't see (or care) what the photographers' real internal costs are. So everyone charges blindly forward, hoping that the next generation of hardware won't leave them all out of fashion and penniless.

A few folks have big enough names to bypass this — they know that what sells is their imagery and (if they're lucky) their byline attached to it. While some of the Digital Converted might think this is all an unfair bias by editors, I think more likely it's just common sense on the part of the people involved. They are established, they know what they do. Turning their process upside down, when it's already successful, is unlikely to magically improve it and may well kill the goose for the sake of someone else's golden egg. Film doesn't really cost much, especially if you know those photos don't need to be on the New York editor's disk server by 7PM tonight. You can concentrate on the real expenses, and the real issues of making the pictures. For what it costs for Sabastaio Salgado to fly to Indonesia and Brazil from Paris just once, how many rolls of Tri-X can he consume?

Comments on "The Devil You Know"

April 4, 2004 06:50 PM

I think the positive connotations of just the word "digital" in common language continue to be largely overrated. This, of course, is in the interest of industry.

April 5, 2004 12:05 AM

The problem with Strassmann et. al. is that they, and their tenets, are demonstrably wrong. Wrong on so many counts.

For instance, I work in a company that searches title reports to provide for lenders doing refinancing. Before IT and automation, this process could take as long as 30 days. The average was probably around two weeks.

After IT and automation of this process, we can complete these reports usually in six hours or less. Or, to put it another way, due to the forces of technology, we can generate these reports in 1/120th the time it used to take. This is but one small example in how technology has changed everything. (As a side not, my team still holds the record for quickest turnaround of a title report ever. Twenty-eight minutes between the order being placed and the report being in the hands of the lender and the loan being ready to close. Twenty-eight minutes. Try that with no IT. No productivity my ass.)

And now I will get to the part that Strassmann, that intellectual assclown, misses utterly. A rising tide lifts all boats -- so our competitors can do the exact same thing. This is why there is no obviously perceptiply greater ROI for us -- because it exists for everyone. It exists across the whole economy, the ROI of IT. He can't see the forest for the trees.

Or, to put it another way, imagine we were doing these reports as they were done in 1975, with basically no IT infrastructure. We'd have an army of abstractors combing courthouses gathering data that'd have to be mailed and then manually typed by some secrectary and a report would come out the other end a month later. Were we to do that now, we'd be completely and utterly out of business in a month.

I am not sure if Strassmann is being deliberately obtuse because he (as many do) simply hate computers, but his arguments and ideas are just utter crap. There is no other way to put it. They are mathematically and ideologically unsound from top to bottom. And that is being kind.

Here is another good example:

April 5, 2004 01:15 AM

I'm not that familiar with "assclowns" so I'll have to take your word for it.

In what way do your record-setting title searches have greater value to your customers today than they had in 1975? Are they more accurate, or just faster? How many of those 1975 weeks were spent, not performing labor w.r.t. the reports, but just waiting for mailed sub-requests to be returned, while the researchers were actually spending time on some other transaction entirely? Has the total amount of actually-expended skilled labor decreased? Increased? By my math, unless you were working 24/7 back in 1975, the average speed increase is only about 1/10th of what you claim. Can you charge as much today as in 1975? Do you have as many people on staff, at proportionally similar salaries? Is your overall volume greater than in 1975, and in a way that's not accountable to changes in the overall real estate market and/or loss of competitors (so that the economy is not grown, simply pooled into fewer participants)?

Faster, sure. That's obvious. But how does that relate to value, other than as a short-term local competetive advantage?

Thanks for the link, I'm familiar with the SI story. Funny that DoP Steve Fine complains about the large volume of shots with so little quality: "After 15,000 pieces of crap, we got a cover."

April 6, 2004 02:16 PM

I thoroughly enjoy reading your site.


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