Until this weekend, when I came across Rob Walker’s brief article about it in the December Atlantic, I had figured the new Lytro camera was more cool gimmick than serious game changer. You’ve probably heard about the technology already. Rather than focusing when you take the picture, you let others focus it later, when they view the image, by clicking on the area they want to see clearly. (Confused? See Lytro’s examples.)
This effect is made possible by capturing far more data than a typical camera. One way to achieve it, Walker writes, is to use “hundreds of cameras to capture all the visual information in a scene,” then use a computer to process the results “into a many-layered digital object.” Another is what the Lytro does: squeeze “hundreds of micro lenses into a single device.”
As technological advances go it’s impressive. But to a photographer, it’s not a big deal. Autofocus usually works just fine.
But Walker’s article made me realize who really benefits from the Lytro: not the photographer, but the viewer. The technology takes part of the artistic decision away from the artist and gives it to the audience. Likewise in journalism, the technology may help shift control of content from the producer to the consumer, as UC Berkeley new-media professor Richard Koci Hernandez told Walker:
Imagine, he suggests, a photojournalist covering a presidential speech whose audience includes a clutch of protesters. Using a traditional camera, he says, “I could easily set my controls so that what’s in focus is just the president, with the background blurred. Or I could do the opposite, and focus on the protesters.” A Lytro capture, by contrast, will include both focal points, and many others. Distribute that image, he continues, and “the viewer can choose—I don’t want to sound professorial—but can choose the truth.”
I’m still not convinced that the Lytro technology by itself is, as Walker says, revolutionary. But it is yet another development that hands more power to the consumers of journalism by giving them more data.
Journalism, of course, has always involved data. Even when you tell a story about an event, as in narrative journalism or photojournalism, you’re presenting the viewer with data. But those data are limited and selective, in the service of a particular point of view about the reality you’re describing. If you choose to focus on the president, that’s what your audience sees. With the Lytro, however, you give them access to far more data; now they, not you, choose what to focus on.
If you don’t think data journalism is going to be a big deal, consider the Lytro and the trend it represents. Technology will not stop here. As it evolves, it will enable everyone to capture and distribute increasingly large amounts of data. And in response, journalism’s role will correspondingly shift from telling stories to giving its audience the data they need to tell their own.