A New Picture Emerges


By Samuel Greengard
Basic economics tells us that what's rare is more valuable. A century ago, simply possessing a photograph of a person or an event was a remarkable thing. Any single photograph was something to covet and cherish. Even in the 1990s, photography was a relatively expensive and finite activity. You had 24 or 36 pictures on a roll and if you ran out of film you were done. Consequently, you had to plan and conserve your shots.

Today, we take digital cameras and photos for granted. Samsung says that there are more than 2.5 billion digital cameras in use around the world. In fact, it's increasingly difficult to find a phone that doesn't include a camera. The pictures we snap--just about anywhere and at any time--appear on Facebook, Flickr and an assortment of other sites. They also appear on digital photo frames that cycle through hundreds or thousands of images every day.

It's safe to say that we now capture an endless stream of moments--many of them thoroughly meaningless--that are transformed into data. Occasionally, we snap something amazing or a citizen journalist documents an amazing event in some faraway place. However, digital currency is very different than physical currency. Post a photo or video on Facebook and it takes on a different meaning--sometimes a greater meaning--based on the ability to attract comments from friends, family and others.

Researchers are only beginning to understand how virtual possessions--photos, music, books, game badges, online friends and other digital booty--change our thinking and behavior. "There is a lot of evidence to show that value accrues very differently for digital things," observes John Zimmerman, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a leading researcher in the field. In some cases, an artifact may actually mean less than the people and comments surrounding it. Or it may possess remarkable ephemeral value and then fall off the edge of the earth.

In the end, perhaps only one thing is clear: the definition of possessions is changing and a brave new world of virtual materialism is emerging. Conventional economic principles may not apply.