Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dittos and Ditching Darkrooms for Digital

Readers of a certain age (ahem) will remember dittos.  Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and photocopying was still considered the province of the elite, public schools did mass-reproductions of handouts on ditto machines. 
Ditto machines were basically rollers with a hollow drum that would be filled with a mildly hallucinogenic purple liquid.  Freshly-run dittos had a distinctive smell to them, and it was a common sight to see students sniff new dittos intensely.  (The movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High has a scene of an entire class sniffing dittos.)  Primo ditto had a way of brightening an otherwise dreary day.  My pet theory on why illegal inhalant use rose so much in the 80’s and 90’s is that students lost access to fresh dittos.  In the 70’s, we got it from our teachers.  It was a different time.
I thought of dittos again as I had a conversation with some of the folks in the art area about photography.  As the whole world knows, the world of photography has migrated fairly quickly from film to digital media.  I literally don’t remember the last time I bought film, but it has been several years at least. 
Film is a delicate medium, requiring lots of care and feeding.  A photography program routinely required well-ventilated darkrooms, enlargers, and all manner of distinctive chemicals with complex disposal protocols.  (I still remember the pungent aroma of stop bath.)  Processing black-and-white film took some doing, but processing color film was really not for the faint-of-heart.  Some programs did their own black-and-white processing in-house, but outsourced the color due to the sheer expense and difficulty.
Digital photography requires an entirely different infrastructure.  You don’t need darkrooms or stop bath, but you do need rooms full of very high-powered computers.  (In my observation, the cognoscenti typically use Macs.)  In place of enlargers and stop bath, you have very high-end printers and Photoshop.   Although it's still usually found in Art departments, the equipment required looks more like what you'd find in a media or computer animation program. 

And yet, whenever someone has the gall to mention that maybe it's time to admit that the 90's are over and it's time to ditch the darkrooms and get on with it, we get the "we need both" arguments.

To hear the photography profs tell it, letting students start with the current technology would be to prevent them from understanding the medium.  It's as if the computer science department insisted on Altairs and Apple Lisas alongside their current offerings, or colleges had to run typewriter pools parallel to their computer labs.  Skip dittos, and you won't appreciate -- really appreciate – photocopying.

Color me skeptical.

Yes, it's fun to take trips down memory lane. And yes, it's probably hard to admit that a technology you spent so long mastering has gone by the wayside. (Apparently, much of Kodak's downward spiral was due to little more than denial.) But money and space dedicated to denying the passage of time are money and space not spent on something else. Keeping the darkrooms open and running is a real cost, both in terms of the operating budget and the opportunity cost. Those rooms and funds could have been used for something else.

This is when I really wish that we had a stronger system for tying curricular decisions to budgetary decisions. Should we keep the darkrooms alongside the digital, or should we use those resources to increase the number of students we could take in the allied health programs? Should we continue to keep a dying technology on life support, or should we use that money to expand our information security program? If you don't make the opportunity cost concrete, it's all too easy to make decisions based on conflict aversion, nostalgia, and personalities. When the possible futures are almost as concrete as the living past, it's easier to get clarity.

Technological progress has its uncomfortable moments, but there's something to be said for facing up to reality. I remember dittos well enough to know that photocopies are just plain better, even if they don't smell like lilacs in the Springtime.