There’s a long, rather drawn out thread on Slashdot right now, wherein an apparently endless queue of geeks are lined up to take Wired to task for their discovery that Good Enough trumps Excellence every time. Quelle Surprise.
But not one of them has observed something that was recently made obvious to me: As technology advances, quality inevitably improves. The world, pace Microsoft, is not so awash in the mediocrity that Wired’s editors have decided to tout as the next big thing. Nothing is ever Good Enough.
What matters more than anything else is Convenience.
My eyes were opened to this a couple of months ago, when, in the course of pillaging my landord’s extensive library of books of and about photography, I came across a truly startling collection of photos from Papua New Guinea taken in the early 1920s. The almost liquid tones and gorgeous, lush light in his portraits capture the smoky, dusky interiors of village huts better than anything I’d ever seen before.
When I voiced my admiration to Ben, he observed, “Photography hasn’t significantly improved since the early years. It’s just become more convenient.”
I’ve spent the last six years taking photos in conditions not entirely dissimilar to those faced by the author of these stunning prints. The biggest difference between his experience and mine is that I was able to capture some poor approximation of the quality he achieved with a tiny little chunk of plastic, glass and circuitry. Further, instead of having to carry literally tons of cumbersome glass plates and spend weeks experimenting with different fluid combinations to mitigate the need to develop them in lukewarm, silty river water, I simply swapped multi-gigabyte memory chips in and out of my 1 kg gizmo.
Now, to give credit where credit is due, I’ve never taken a single shot that even approximates the lush beauty of these pioneering photos. I could, though, if I could scrape together the cash for a larger format camera back and some serious glass. But I try to make my photos as could as they can be, given the amount of time and money available.
None of that is really germane, though. I’ve been passionate about photography all my life. I had a few kicks at it when I was young, but each time left off because I just couldn’t produce the same kind of thing I saw every month in National Geographic.
It wasn’t until someone gave me an SLR to use that I began to get really excited about my own prospects. (It didn’t hurt that the first photos I took with it were of the stunning vistas of Baffin Island – my initial opinion of myself was much too high, but the truth, when it arrived, only motivated me to keep trying to reach that early peak.) The SLR, Wired would like to us think, is Good Enough. Good enough for Robert Capa and countless others to revolutionise photojournalism by taking photos of things heretofore impossible to record.
True, their photos weren’t necessarily of better quality. Capa’s famous image of a Spanish soldier at the moment of his death is skillfully taken – a masterpiece of timing, if nothing else. But it doesn’t compare to those glorious plates staring back at me from 1922. The magic of the SLR was what it made possible. Capa was able to take that photo from the scant cover of a small rocky outcrop because he could hold the camera in his hand. We iconize him because he got so much quality out of so little.
Good Enough is what we accept when we sacrifice our expectations to the greater god: Convenience.
If Good Enough were good enough (sorry), we wouldn’t see the constant push toward quality that constitutes the entire history of consumerism. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to compile the nearly endless list of consumer items whose quality has inexorably improved as soon as it became convenient to do so.
Post Scriptum: I should mention, by the way, that every photo I’ve taken in the last month or so has been with a decades-old 105 mm lens that just happens to have great quality glass. And just like Capa and every photographer since has done, I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to take decent shots in much lower light than I would otherwise have been able to. In this particular case, giving up most of the automatic features on my camera was worth it to get better quality. The goal is always the best quality at a given level of convenience. Interest determines just how Convenient something has to be before it’s Good Enough.