Technology April 2006

A Thousand Words

Cameras and telephones are coming together—and bringing people together—in ways that can shape society

That change will start with people's actually being able to find, use, and show around their rapidly expanding collection of digital photos. This offers hope for solving the 'shoebox problem,'" says Mor Naaman, also of Yahoo Research Berkeley and a veteran of Stanford's computer-science department. The collection of digital photos most people quickly amass is, if anything, harder to make use of than the box of snapshots it replaced. Digital photos pile up faster; scanning through them can be slow and cumbersome; and their identifying labels tend to be completely meaningless—like this label for a picture I recently took of my family with my regular digital camera: P1010008.JPG. Naaman's research involves ways pictures taken with camera phones can be automatically labeled and classified, so the search for a shot from the Trevi Fountain or last year's birthday will become shorter and more satisfying.

Every camera-phone shot carries information that helps classify it. "For one thing, it's very likely that the photo was taken by you, or is of you," Naaman says. "People share their cameras but usually not their phones." The photo also has an exact time stamp, because a camera phone is always updating its time from the service provider's network. This avoids the problem that plagues my own digital photos: most appear to have been taken on January 1, 2000, because my camera loses its date whenever I change the batteries, and I long ago grew tired of resetting it. A camera phone can also record where a picture was taken. Mobile-phone networks can keep track of a phone while it's in use, either through GPS receivers built into some models or by triangulation on nearby cell towers. "Geotagged" photos from such systems can be directly uploaded to sites like geosnapper.com, where they become part of a searchable collection.

On his Stanford Web site, reachable through tinyurl.com/c5rx7, Naaman shows what his auto-classification tool can do. He has posted several thousand of his own photos, which the system has categorized by location, time of day, season, and so on. It's a step up from the shoebox. An automated system obviously requires more computing power than is now available in the camera phone itself; working prototypes of such services already exist. Other software being tested automatically recognizes faces, or landmarks, or kinds of social events.

Camera phones, apart from their role in classifying photos you might have taken in any case (photos from regular digital cameras don't come with automatic location data, and few have an accurate time), seem likely to mark a change in the kinds of pictures people take. Caterina Fake, the founder of the photo-sharing site Flickr, says that whenever she gets off an airplane flight, she snaps a picture in the baggage area and sends it immediately to her mother: "She always worries about planes, and this lets her sleep at night." Nancy Van House, a Berkeley professor whose current project involves "the social uses of personal photography," says that she thinks of her phone as a kind of memo pad. "I find that I'm using it just to capture text," she says. "If I see a book in a bookstore I want to look at later, I take a picture of the cover, as a note to myself."

Clearly, it makes a difference to have a camera always at hand, and to be able to instantly share what you see. Many of the projects under way at Flickr and Yahoo Berkeley involve what Marc Davis calls "sharing with others known and unknown." "Known others" would be friends or family members. Caterina Fake says that when a woman she knows was having a baby, the husband took his camera phone to the hospital and sent discreet progress pictures to a Web site, where friends could view them.

"Unknown others" are people linked only by sharing a common experience or interest. The unknown audience can include prospective travelers who view street scenes in Budapest or Rangoon posted on Flickr, and it can even extend to a broad news- consuming public, as journalists and onlookers equipped with camera phones record ever more of the world's hard news. After the London subway bombings last July, hundreds of civilians with camera phones posted photos on Web sites in greater variety, and faster, than official news organizations did. International newspapers now post amateur camera-phone pictures of events that news photographers have been unable to get to. American guards at Abu Ghraib used camera phones to take and share photos of themselves posing with prisoners. After the photos became public, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued a sweeping ban on camera phones at U.S. military installations in Iraq.

Systems built into Flickr and similar photo-sharing sites, Davis says, will make "personal memory, and social and global memory, accessible in a way it was not before." Such language usually makes me cringe. But then I think of the connections I've made and valued through Internet affinity groups, and the many events where I would have liked to see what other people noticed, and I think I know what he means.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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