This is purely from the hip, seeing where it goes kind of stuff. You have been warned.

So, I’ve been a little obsessed with the camera market lately, and although I am usually against this sort of thing, I’ve started reading/watching reviews and commentary about the recent release. A shocking amount of the rhetoric involved seems to be a bit like this:

Now, I have no desire to engage in a debate about which brand is better; what I am interested in is the line of thinking that leads to this type of debate. Put simply – there is a built-in assumption that it is important to have “the best camera,” and that this is reflective of “the best photographer.” This is partially technological determinism, and more specifically a subset that, for lack of a better term, I would call technological fetishism. I’ll focus on the former mostly, because in this case it is more appropriate to a Marxist interpretations, but will try to tease out the latter as a special case afterward.

One of the most notable features of both of these cameras is that they both his around the $3,000 point. This seems to denote a level of importance that requires discourse – if someone is to put down that much money, it should be warranted by a certain amount of value. Correlated with that price is a notion of “professional” – both are listed as professional cameras. Partly, this is an aspect of the denotation of professional – one who gets paid for something. If one gets paid for something, that offsets the expense. If the ROI crunches in the black, then the investment is justified. However, the connotation of the term “professional” is someone who is proficient at something to the extent that they deserve money. Therefor, there is a tie between money and aptitude – this shouldn’t be tremendously surprising. What is more interesting, and where technological determinism comes in, is the association that having a professional camera will make someone a professional, and therefor
will somehow increase aptitude. Add to this an aspect of scarcity (due to the speed of production) and suddenly the camera not only increases proficiency, but also makes the owners part of an exclusive group whose proficiency has been increased in this way. Now, this is not to take away from any of the features that a camera has and how those may be valuable in certain circumstances, but a large amount of the rhetoric seems to be based around generalizations that are rooted in the social-technical-economical mentality described above.

Now is when I will request that the audience dawn their foil hats. Technological fetishism (again, poorly thought out wording) would be the move from it merely being a mistaken removal of agency to something that actually manifests as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This seems easiest to detail in a creative sphere, although it could be argued in other situations as well. If we are to accept the idea that art is somehow related to emotion (I concede this in some circumstances, but do not exclude non-emotional content from art) then confidence would play a role in that form of expression. If one were to take the technologically deterministic perspective that the camera does make them a professional, then by having it they would be granted the confidence of a professional. When it comes to societal reception of their work, the audience may look at it differently knowing their ownership of professional equipment. If the artifact itself is abstracted away, then the work conceptually is improved. Now, there are numerous counter-examples to this – people who buy an expensive camera and continue to take crumby pictures (I am not too ashamed to say that I fall into this trap), but there is definitely a mental and emotional state brought on by new technology, and it can have an effect on output. What’s more, while I feel like the other theories account for aspects of this, none of them covers it holistically.

I’m still not certain that this is a distinct flavor of technological determinism or even just propaganda to sell cameras, but it seems like there is something there, albeit ill-defined at this point. As an addendum, this seems to be part of the divide on perception of the pen tool (which I will admit to over-criticizing, along with Adobe). However, I would point to the kind of mentality described above being an aspect of the divide on that tool – a $500 professional design program that many who do not have it would believe could produce a better designer. The divide on the pen tool (which comes from my observations when hiring a graphic designer) stems from the same technological determinism that states that a better camera will produce better photos. Again, what’s interesting is that the tool’s capabilities are built into a professional program, and that those capabilities are then tied to be a professional – meaning that some people may learn to use them to reach a goal, but that others may learn them to increase their professional tool-set, and then define goals off of that set. This again brushes with Marxism in that the professional needs an edge over the amateur (think proletariate and bourgeois fashion) and so Adobe continues to add more features to, extending the analogy, stay one step ahead of the Joneses.

Really rough, but if you read this and feel your time was wasted, watch this and all will be better: