When the Xbox 360 came out, it was portrayed as something everyone wanted, the amazing new console that was selling out everywhere. Yet the next week, when I walked into Costco they had a pallet piled high with the things.

When the Wii was launched, it became the console that was really selling out everywhere. But by then, Microsoft had moved on to their new story, that the Xbox 360 was the biggest selling next-gen console.

Except that it isn’t.

If you read the small print on Microsoft’s announced sales figures, you find that they’re not actually lying; but they count a console as sold as soon as it leaves the factory. Sony and Nintendo do the same, but there’s a big difference in how that figure relates to the number of consoles actually sold to gamers.

If you walk into any electronics store, you’ll probably see several dozen Xbox 360s piled up in the main store. You won’t see anything like as many PS3s, and you probably still won’t see a Wii. Think about that. Also, think about the fact that electronics stores don’t actually like to pile expensive items up in the middle of the store inside their boxes; it usually indicates that they’ve got even more piles of the things in storage out back, and have run out of space and are trying desperately to shift them. Have you ever seen a big pile of digital cameras in their boxes in Best Buy? A stack of dozens of Denon receivers in Circuit City? Nope. But you’ve probably seen a big stack of $30 Chinese DVD players on clearance…

Someone has put these observations together with some hard sales data. It turns out that the channel is absolutely bloated with unwanted Xbox 360s. Not only that, the 360 was almost matched for sales by the PS2, except during Halo release month, which is clearly visible as a statistical anomaly. When the release of a single game skews your sales that much, that can’t be a good thing either, can it?

In fact, Xbox 360 sales peaked in 2006. And with the PS3 now having a solid library of good games, I don’t see it improving. Also interesting is the analysis of how the 360 is actually more expensive than the PS3, once you factor in the add-ons to make it equivalent in capability.

Now that I’ve been participating in Flickr for a while, I’ve realized that digital technology has fundamentally changed the nature of photography. Perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right places, but I don’t recall seeing any discussion of this amidst the hype about Things Digital.

On the face of it, digital cameras shouldn’t have been that big of a disruptive factor. Film cameras were so cheap they were given away as promotional items, whereas digital cameras were hundreds of dollars. (Still are, if you want a decent one.) Minilabs had brought 1 hour processing to the world, and dropped costs to around 30¢ a picture. It’s not like there was anyone who needed to think about the expense involved in taking a particular shot.

Of course, there’s an immediacy to digital; you can print your photos in a minute or two, and you can print a single photo without waiting until you finish a roll. Yet film got there first, in the shape of Polaroid, and look what happened to them. Also, printing your own digital photos is expensive—you end up eating up any cost savings you made by shifting from film. Also, if you’re lazy or forgetful like me, you let images collect on your memory card and download them once a week.

Is it the Internet that has been the catalyst of change? Again, I’m not really convinced. People had flatbed scanners long before they had digital cameras, and plenty of people still dislike viewing photographs online, in spite of the superior image possible from a computer screen.

So it seems as though digital photography doesn’t really offer anything all that radical; just a combination of minor improvements. Yet somehow, digital photography has led to radical changes.

First off, it has changed the nature of the subjects people take photographs of. As a child, I was lucky enough to be given a camera and plenty of film. I started off taking pictures of objects that I found interesting—close up pictures of toys, the grass under my feet, and so on. It didn’t last, though. I don’t remember whether it was explicitly communicated to me, but I quickly learned that the primary purpose of photography was to record pictures of people grinning while standing in front of famous places.

Now, though, everyone seems to be reconnecting with the childish glee of being able to record any small piece of the world they see, and show it to other people. With a digital camera, people somehow feel free to photograph a discarded beer can, a rusting sign or the bruise on someone’s leg.

The second big change is commentary. Partly it’s the fact that you can access the photos immediately, but I think a lot of it is that you have a natural way to associate comments with the picture, without having to start a scrapbook. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

My mother used to write on the back of prints with a pen. This was less than ideal. With a ball-point pen the smooth front surface would often get visible markings, and the ink would generally rub off all too easily.

With digital photos online, the commentary can be more of a shared, social, collaborative experience. And you don’t need to turn the photo over to see the words.

The third change is that photography has been democratized. Yes, professionals can often do a better job, turning out photos of consistently high quality; but it seems as though with persistence and lots of experimentation, all kinds of ordinary untrained folk are capturing occasionally stunning images. Maybe they don’t know how, but that can come later.

The final change is the sheer mass of images available to everyone to look at. This is really a side effect of big change #1, that people take pictures of everything now, combined with the existence of handy Internet web sites. Want to see a picture of (say) a steam train, a glass of water, a capybara, or a sock? There are hundreds on Flickr, and if you run out there you can try any of half a dozen other photo sites, or Google image search.

[Update: Looking for a more positive story about ubiquitous cameras?]

David Brin wrote about the coming social revolution at length in his book The Transparent Society. Momus provided some handy tips in his song The Age of Information. Now Dog-Shit-Girl has demonstrated the dangers of not picking up the courtesy cluephone.

We live in a world where increasing numbers of people have digital cameras. In fact, in a few years the majority of people will have a mobile phone with built-in camera and Internet connection. This means that if you are going to be an antisocial ass in public, there’s a good chance that you will be recorded, your antics will be publicized, and you will be mocked. The worse your behavior, the more widespread your infamy. If what you do is bad enough, you might get threats; you might find that people recognize you, point at you in the street and yell at you.

You can whine all you like about privacy and rights; it won’t do any good. The Internet and digital cameras are not going to go away. Legislation won’t stop it, the transparent society is coming. My advice is to learn to live in it. People will be able to publish facts about you to a massive audience, so it’s probably a good idea to make sure the facts on offer are favorable ones.

In a way, it’s a return to the past. When we lived in villages where everyone knew everyone else, the antisocial would become outcasts. Now we’re headed back that way; the only difference is the size of the village.

In 2001–2003, I had a rather bad experience with Nikon Digital’s repair service. The product I had problems with was an APS adaptor for a high end film scanner, but other people have written to me with similar tales of woe regarding digital cameras and digital SLRs.


  1. I discovered that while Nikon are reknowned for the quality of their lenses, they also make some really shoddy products. High price and the Nikon name is no guarantee of quality.

  2. I found out that if you buy a faulty Nikon digital imaging product, such as a scanner or a digital camera, your chances of getting it repaired or replaced with a working product seem to be pretty slim.

  3. When Nikon were unable to get the product to work after four attempts, I couldn’t get a refund for the non-working product without a year of ignored letters, phone calls and faxes.

  4. The Nikon product jammed with some of my irreplacable negatives inside. I couldn’t open up the unit to get the film out without voiding the warranty, and Nikon failed to extricate and return the film.

I did finish scanning the rest of my APS film cassettes, no thanks to Nikon. I had to break open each cassette, pull out the film, and chop it up into individual frames. I then mounted each frame in a 35mm glass slide, adjusting for the size difference by using plastic spacers cut by hand from old subway passes using a sharp knife and a metal ruler. As you can imagine, the process was very fiddly and laborious and no fun at all.

Anyway, here’s the whole sorry tale…

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