Wednesday, July 11, 2012

We Live in the Future.

The other day, I was editing Wikipedia when I had a thought. Shocking, I suppose.

At that moment, I was uploading photos of South Attleboro, a commuter rail station on Boston's MBTA system. I'd taken these photos from a passing Amtrak train.

That's not much of a future, is it?

Consider from the perspective of 1835, when the line was built.

Consider, first, that I was taking a photograph. Photography was not unknown in 1835 - a few primitive processes had been created. But the first practical technique, the daugerreotype, was still two years away. Photographic film - the first imaging medium capable of short exposures like the 1/1000 and 1/1600 second shots I took - would wait until the 1880s, and single-exposure color photography until Autochrome in 1907.

But my images were digital. I was able to crop them, improve their contrast, and straighten them long after I took them. Digital photography was primarily developed for astronomy - in order to take pictures of objects too faint for the human eye.

My camera is a mid-range camera, which cost about $150 a year ago. It has a 12x optical zoom, image stabilization, and the ability to shoot HD (1280p) video. All of these things would have cost a pretty penny - or been downright unavailable - even just a few years ago.

Now, consider the subject of my photography. South Attleboro is one part of the MBTA commuter rail system. The system has some 70,000 outbound boardings per day. Every single day, a mass of people equal to the city's entire population in 1835 board those purple trains and leave the city. In 1835, the city was just discovering railroads. Only a few major lines - to Providence, Lowell, and Worcester - were even complete, and they only offered limited, low-speed service.

And now, back up a second. Recall those extremely short exposures - 1/1000 second and shorter - that I used. Those were necessary because of where I was taking the pictures from: the window seat of a passing Amtrak train.

My copy of an Amtrak employee timetable indicates that the speed limit on Northeast Corridor past South Attleboro is 125 mph, which also the top speed of a Northeast Regional train like the one I was on. In 1835, no person had traveled at 125 miles per hour. The first humans to travel at that speed and survive were likely the crew of experimental German railway trains in October 1903. It's now commonplace - for as little as 11 dollars, one can step aboard a train that travels that speed with near-perfect reliability.

Finally, consider what I was doing with the pictures: uploading them to Wikimedia Commons for use on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an incredible thing: one of the world's greatest and broadest collections of information, free for anyone with web access to use, and assembled entirely by volunteers. Some 2.3 billion people worldwide have internet access; although some countries like China censor Wikipedia, none completely block the site. Thus, there are 2.3 billion people who could conceivably see these images - that is, twice the number of people who were alive in 1835.

Welcome to the future. It's pretty fascinating.

Pictured: 177 years later, and some of us still can't take very good pictures.

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