“Desire creates barriers. Barriers create desire.” I heard this conundrum somewhere, long ago, and I turn it over in my mind when I’m stuck somewhere with nothing else to think about. It’s an interesting paradox.
I was reminded of it by a comment posted to a previous post in this blog (Luck) in which Felix Grant described the success of one of his less talented but more hard-working students beyond that of more talented but less hard-working classmates. Does greater difficulty (the barrier) make for greater desire and thus a stronger work ethic?
When thinking about this, I always end up speculating about how small both the desire and the barrier can be. If you desire food and you get your burger in one minute, does the concept still apply? If one has a perfect marriage, can one have little mini time barriers within that perfection that will thus support desire?
Eventually, as the time to satisfaction of desire shrinks to zero, you end up with instant gratification. Is there such a thing — satisfaction with no barrier or is there always at least some minimal barrier (you have to chew your food or tear the wrapper off your new iPod)?
What does instant gratification do to value? If supply vs demand determines value and there is instant supply, does that mean value approaches zero? If there are no barriers, there is no desire. If desire correlates to motivation, what happens to ones work ethic?
Which (finally!) leads me to photography. According to an America Online’s Digital Picture Survey, the number-one reason why people like digital photography is … instant gratification (poll is from 2004).
What does this mean? About digital photography of any kind, but in particular about valuation of ones work, motivation to work harder, and the benefits that can be achieved only by delayed gratification?
What makes Christmas presents, wrapped up and sitting under the tree, making you wait; or the big game that one anticipates for weeks in advance; or the fruits of any long struggle … so valuable, so enjoyable, memorable, so desired? Bigger barriers? Did you ever work in a wet darkroom? Do you remember this?
There was something almost biblical about the early process of creating an image. Needing a source of illumination, pictures were seemingly carried on rays of light, traveling from the subject and momentarily transferred or hidden inside the camera, adhering itself onto a negative. Then, from a place deep inside the photographer’s darkroom, the printed image arose, miraculously appearing on a previously blank piece of paper soaked in a bath of chemicals.
from The Art of Instant Gratification by Joel Trachtenberg
Or, what’s so wonderful about reading a book or seeing a movie? Getting — slowly; in good time — to the ending, right?
According to a poll of 500 children taken for the British bookstore chain Waterstone’s, nearly one-fifth of Harry Potter fans will skip straight to the end of the final book in the series. Is there something wrong with sussing out an ending in advance?
… Surely it’s more fun to speculate about the outcome along the way, and then feel humbled, or exhilarated, or despondent when you realize you got it all wrong.
To date, I’ve only heard one convincing reason to flip to the back, from another famous Harry. In When Harry Met Sally, Harry says “I always read the last page first. That way in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends.”
-from Peeking at Potter from Slate Magazine
On the other side of the argument, in an article called, Against Deferred Gratification, Micheal Steinberg writes:
We pay a high price for inventing and maintaining this separation. Life becomes a lot less interesting, for one thing, and generally far less satisfying. The retiree who can’t slow down to enjoy retirement is one victim: the chosen end was a life without money problems, but the means took too large a toll. Our resigned acceptance of the brutal, dangerous or merely boring and mind-numbing quality of most work is another price exacted by the regime of deferred gratification. So is the the institutionalization of most every practice and the commodification of ends as entertainments and commercialized experiences like “vacation packages” and “retirement lifestyles.”
Even more pernicious, perhaps, is the way our notions of morality have been transformed. Once means and ends get split apart we need overt principles of selection and justifications for the ends we pursue. This raises all the problems of modern ethics, and it also tends inexorably to instrumentalize means. We set a high standard for our ultimate goals; it’s no longer enough to rely on the exemplars of myth or our affective responses. We must, as Kant insists, become legislators over ourselves. But the territory of morality then shrinks until means to our self-legislated ends occupy a kind of ethical demilitarized zone.
The above may have some relevance to privacy or decency issues in photography — analog and digital.
I think that there are some real issues of devaluation that come from digital instant-ness. But I also think that many of the barriers that were removed along with film have been replaced by those of the digital darkroom (image processing). It’s the nature of artists to push to the boundaries of what is possible. I think digital photographers will (are) rapidly find new boundaries, new barriers against which to build their desire.