Digital Tools Make 'Progress Towards Perfecting Flaws,' but Why?

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Nothing makes you long for the days of low-resolution, analog television quite like staring at the glorious high-definition pores of a news broadcaster. While digital cameras can capture everything in ultra high resolution, maybe they shouldn't. In this week's The New York Times Magazine, the brilliant Rob Walker looks into digital tools that mimic the imperfections of analog media, in effect making "progress toward perfecting flaws."  

A conspicuous example is the $1.99 Hipstamatic iPhone application, which, as one review put it, filters images made with the device's camera "to make them look as though they were taken with an unreliable plastic camera . . . rather than this complex mobile smart phone." In mid-July it was the 17th-most-popular paid app in the iTunes store; drop by the Hipstamatic Flickr pool to browse more than 53,000 digital images, with pleasingly washed-out colors or other beguiling imperfections resembling those created by glitches in analog processes.

What's the appeal of such tools? Walker argues that there is a link between "the flawed and the interesting."

A boringly perfect digital picture of a flower makes no impression. But an equally boring one marred by (digitally recreated) light leaks, exposure mistakes and focus inconsistencies presses the aesthetic button that suggests deeper meaning. Specifically, the image looks like one from a time before taking a thousand pictures in a weekend was routine. It taps into a language that predates digital abundance in order to layer on implied significance where, as often as not, none exists.

This is a wonderful passage -- and certainly the instant-patina effect is part of Hipstamatic's appeal. But I'm an avid Hipstamatic user myself (that's my best friend up there) and I think there is a more prosaic reason that the app has taken off: the previous generation iPhone cameras are terrible. The photos they take, particularly in low light, are often blurry and noisy. Imperfection is a given, but at least the blemishes can be interesting and serendipitous.

In other words, you can't beat the flaws of your iPhone camera, so Hipstamatic lets you own them.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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