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April 2010

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Technology is a marvelous thing. At its best, it enables people to express themselves, to do things that had once been impossible or impractical; but as it does so, the wizards of the old domain find that their arcane knowledge loses value dramatically.

Consider, if you will, the photographer.

Initially, photography was a purely technical exercise, which required not only technical expertise but the possession of costly and cumbersome machinery. There were very few wizards, and everything they did was magic.

As the 20th century progressed, things began to change. 35mm cameras were available in a (relatively) affordable form, and the value proposition shifted. Operating and owning the machine was no longer an impenetrable barrier to entry; people could actually do so in their own homes. They could capture photographs of their own lives.

Of course, there was still magic to it: even though a home user could afford to take photos, the costs were still significant, and the technical skill required to operate consumer-grade devices was still decidedly non-trivial. Technology had facilitated the notion of an "amateur photographer," but an "amateur photographer" was, himself, still something of a wizard.

For the utter non-wizard, there arose "point and shoot" and instant cameras. Anybody who wanted to take a picture was eventually able to do so; but, even so, these devices were still cumbersome, and for any larger prints one still needed at least an amateur wizard.

In parallel to the proliferation of photographic equipment developed a new notion: that of photography as art. It's undeniable that some people have a gift in this respect, some special capacity to capture a specific moment, framed a certain way, optimally composed to elicit a certain response. Entire schools of study were devoted to this art form, and the photographer became more than a technical wizard, he also became viewed as an artist.

It's astounding, then, to watch the extent to which technology has changed the equation. It is true that every advance in the film era (and there were many) opened the gates a little wider, but the real revolution has come from the digital age.

I own a Sony A700, which is a fully digital SLR. This is a device that would have been completely unfathomable 15 years ago, and the notion of such equipment as a mass market consumer product would have been equally unfathomable as recently as 7 years ago. Think about how significant this is: within a mere 15 years, we've gone from something that was almost unimaginable at any cost, to something that almost any middle class enthusiast can find a way to afford.

The readily available Digital SLR has effectively killed photography as technical wizardry. Gone are the physical machinations inherent to film processing. Gone is the wait between capture and development. Gone is the limitation of sharing an image only through a physical object. Even gone is the required expertise and ridiculously specialized equipment required to create images which can be printed at poster quality.

Compared to what came before, this machine is so magical that anybody who touches it becomes a wizard.

I feel a bit for the purely technical career photographer, who strikes me as the equivalent of a gas station attendant as self-serve fuel pumps are developed. His specific form of wizardry is devalued, and his craft has become a commodity. The truly exceptional photographers (who have a knack for consistently finding a powerful image) will always remain in demand, but just being a guy with a camera who knows how to use it is no longer enough to make a living.

One can lament the plight of the technician photographer, but society as a whole clearly wins in this bargain. The notion of "photography as art" is now not only nearly universally recognized, but is also nearly universally accessible, and we currently witness the creation of photographic images the likes and volume of which would have been just as unimaginable as my camera 20 years ago. Artists no longer must emerge as a subset of the small pool of technical wizards, but from the massive pool of... well, virtually everybody who can post a picture online.

The notion of photographer as a technician is nearly dead, but the photographer as an artist? He's more alive than ever; and he is everybody.

I'm using Google Chrome more and more. In addition to my earlier gripe about password saving, there are various other perplexing design decisions. To me, none is more odd than Chrome's menu icons.

For Linux or Windows builds, Chrome/Chromium has no traditional "File/Edit/Tools/Whatever" menu headers, and instead uses a couple of icons on the toolbar:

Google apparently hates the old style menu bar, and rightfully so, since it steals valuable screen real estate from the in-browser apps that it thinks are the future of computing.* Google decides they want nothing to do with it in Chrome, but instead of creating something new (like MS has done with its "Ribbon"), they take those same old menu items and bury them into two "toolbar menus" represented by icons: a "rectangle with a triangle in the upper right corner" icon, and a "wrench" icon.

Right there, some alarm bells are going off. What is a rectangle icon? Is that the page? A document? What the hell is a wrench for? I've never used a wrench on a computer (well, there was that one time...). Based on its usage in other applications I can guess it means advanced settings or... something... right?

(Incidentally, Sun servers have a "wrench" light on them, which indicates they need... an oil change, I guess?)

So, say you're a user staring at a Rectangle menu and a Wrench menu. Under which menu would you expect to find "Developer" menu options? Under which menu would you expect to open a new tab? (I'm aware that you can cheat by looking at my screenshot. Feel free, if that makes you feel better).

Answer: New tab is under wrench, developer is under rectangle. Clear as mud, right? Never mind that "wrench" normally means something like "tinkering" or "settings" or "change oil," and that the "rectangle" menu kinda looks like an empty document. We're in the google world now, it makes perfect sense!**

Of course, all those nasty menu items must go somewhere, and it's not exactly obvious where "somewhere" should be. Google probably figures they can just give the user a couple of obscure icons and let them work it out by the process of elimination. This is probably a valid assumption, but it doesn't make the icons themselves any less perplexing.

Bottom line: apparently, Google has solved the problem of incoherent menu bars - with incoherent toolbars. So... yay?

* To be clear, I'm no File/Edit/Tools/Whatever menu apologist. That's a dated UI paradigm that doesn't map well to many modern real world scenarios; for example, Firefox's "File" menu contains such gems as "Work Offline." What does that have to do with a file? And why is "Print" in the file menu of a web browser? I'm printing a web page, not a file, right? Why is "Find" in an "Edit" menu? I'm not editing anything!

** In case you're curious, these icons actually do represent logical groupings, but good luck guessing what they are by icon alone. The "rectangle" menu contains actions limited in scope to the current document (well this is, actually, a lie - for example the "zoom" options impact all chrome processes - however this is the way the menu is conceived). The "wrench" option is a sort of "Meta" menu, responsible for managing chrome as a whole.