Photography and the post-scarcity economy

Posted by on August 2nd, 2012

Photographs themselves are not scarce commodities. Style and knowledge are.

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of videos on 3D printers like the RepRap and Maker Bot. I think the applications for photography and multimedia are huge. Imagine printing follow focuses or even lens adaptors right from home.

We are quickly approaching what some economists and science-fiction writers call the “post-scarcity economy.” A world where manufacturing becomes personal and abundance universal. A world where commerce is not determined by the value of limited goods but by the creativity of individuals.

Some people look forward to this type of economy and others fear it (what happens to gun control when you can print weapons at home?), but photographers are already living in it. In fact, we have been living in it for quite some time.

Two things pushed us into the post-scarcity economy; the first was digitization. In the “old days” you took a photo, developed a negative, and then printed a picture. There were a finite number of your photos in existence. Today, your photos are replicated time and again on your personal computer alone. Put those photos online or send them to a client and the number of copies grows exponentially.

The second thing that moved photos from scarcity to abundance was the increasing ease of taking them. Thanks to digital technology, photographers around the globe are uploading thousands of images to the internet every minute. Fifty years ago someone might have paid a photographer for a stock photo of a cat, but today you can find 410,166 free photos of cats for commercial use on Flickr alone.

Our industry has tried to stay alive by fiercely protecting our copyright and holding on to licenses like they were gold, but the truth is our old business models are showing their age. The music industry and the newspaper publishing industry are in the same boat. Just like photographers, they are struggling to establish value for products consumers are no longer willing to pay for.

This is the part in the story where I should end on some pessimistic note. I should talk about how uncertain the future of photography is and I should tell young photographers to reconsider their career choice. But I’m not going to do any of that. Why? Because I’m excited about where photography is going.

We should be glad that we are the front-runners in a new economic model. It means we have more time to figure out how it works, more time to discover ways to make a living, and more time to experiment with business models before the rest of the world is thrust into fray.

What do these new business models look like? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m trying to figure it out just like you, and I’m ready for whatever comes next. I like change, I embrace technology, and I’m looking forward to the challenges of finding ways of making my passion my income in this new age.

If I could offer any advice it is this: Don’t hold on to a sinking ship and don’t be afraid to experiment. Everyone likes to point to the elevator operator as the occupation that disappeared in the blink of an eye, but what happened to those people after they lost their jobs? I like to think that some embraced the changes and became elevator repairmen or even elevator engineers.

The point is, photography is a fluid industry. The business model that worked yesterday might not work today and today’s might not work tomorrow. If you’re serious about this business, then you need to be serious about change. In my mind, that is a small price to pay for a job where you get to wake up and follow your passions every day.

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