Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

Digital technology is transitory and fleeting

Long ago, that is about twenty years ago, one would buy a Nikon F4 or a Leica M6 with the pleasant thought that it would be a camera for at least ten years of photo pleasure.
Now when buying the M240 or the M262 you know that the camera model will be obsolete within five years. What is new in one camera today is ubiquitous in all cameras the next year. The Leica M8, once proudly announced with the LUP, the strategy with which Leica tried to evade the obsolescence problem of all electronic equipment, is now completely forgotten, a relic, but only ten years old.
The so-called technological progress does not enhance user satisfaction and does not improve the quality of the photographic content or the capabilities of the user. That is why companies like Canon and Nikon are in trouble. More technological progress does not translate in better and/or different photography. The user does not want to buy another camera that promises more of the same.
That is why only niche companies flourish. They offer the illusion of something different. In reality, these products have basically the same technology as all others, but a smarter package. Fuji bets on retro-design, Sony on effectiveness, Leica on luxury and nostalgia. Whatever the package and the technology, today’s serious photography is not different from the great photographs made during the 1950’s. A recent exhibition about the (Leica)-photographer Werner Bischoff is a clear indication. What is different is size and clarity, thanks to digital technology that has changed continuous signals to discrete signals and signal processing from amplifiers to repeaters. This is a major change, increasing the fidelity of transmission.
It is certainly a truism (and not exactly true) to say that society has been changing from a material goods society to an information service society. Some time ago a new camera system was a real novelty and people were eagerly waiting for any news about the Canon New F1 or the Nikon F2. Only a handful of respected magazines and journalists informed the photographer about the virtues and effectiveness of a new camera or lens. And one had to wait sometimes a for a year before one could read about it.
In his book “Too big to know” Weinberger points to the significant differences between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. It takes time to move from the analysis of data to the formulation of knowledge.
In the current world of internet data exchange there is no such time lag. Blogs reporting about a new camera or lens are often online before the official announcement has been made. It is well-known (Kahnemann) that human decision making takes place on two levels: a fast superficial level and a slow deeper layer. The choice for a photographic product is almost always made in the superficial level, and the deeper level is only required when a justification is needed. Luckily for everyone who has this need for justification there is always a blog or report that is positive or negative about this specific product. There is a random choice for justification. Products come and go in an endless stream of announcements. And a product three years old is forgotten and obsolete.
The blogosphere has good and bad characteristics. There is now an abundance of data and opinions (information), but no longer experts whose knowledge and wisdom we can trust as a guidance for decision-making and for the increase of our own wisdom. The original thinkers about the role and use of information (in a wide sense) noted that surprise was an important characteristic of information. If a piece of information does not add to your knowledge because it is known already or can be expected there is no real increase of information. It is part of the human propensity to homophily (we prefer people and opinions that are like us). But real information has to surprise. This is what Darwin accomplished when he wrote about evolution theory. There is however no grain of surprise in blogs about Leica products: the information that is being produced holds no surprises at all. The good point is that anyone can use what he likes from any blog. And an even better point is that one can read what one does not like and so can make a start with building a knowledge base of metadata (information about information) and see the structure (knowledge) in someone’s writings. If you have knowledge about knowledge (the next stage) one starts to acquire wisdom.
Reports about the results of pixelpeeping-actions are the lowest level of data gathering. Most reviews are comparative and this is in fact a relic of classical car and motorcycle reviews. A motorcycle that can do the acceleration of 0 to 60 miles in 5 seconds is better than one that needs 7 seconds. A camera with a faster AF or a faster sequence of pictures in one second or a larger number of pixels or a bigger sensor must be better than one that is less endowed with one of these characteristics. But data gathering and information processing is not what one wants to read or reflect upon.
Knowledge-building however is not possible in today’s transient digital world. Who wants to read about the Leica M-E since its production has been stopped. It still is a fine camera and real knowledge about it would be an asset to help you gather metadata about the Leica product range.
This then would be one of the solutions for the data overload and opinion overload on the internet: create connections between information and create metadata to build your own knowledge base.