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Accelerated evolution. (Tech Forum).

* WATCHING GRASS GROW IN YOUR BACKYARD might look like a frenetic activity when you compare it to keeping an eye on evolutionary changes. Evolution is invisible because it's gradual in a whole different time scheme. That is, except for technological evolution. With technology, cycles of mutative change can occur within a timeframe that fits in the memory of a solitary human being.

Remember the first pocket calculators? They could do simple arithmetic, and some would even display the current date and time. Where we are now can be seen on the pages of this month's Tools of the Trade. The Zaurus 5500 on page 58, for instance, is a current descendant of the earlier Royal calculators. It does math (spreadsheets and advanced calculus), and it also displays the time (around the world on a blue, sun-shadowed map). In addition, though, it plays movie clips, gets your e-mail, stores and plays digital music, will beat you at chess, and can put the front page of today's London Times in your hands.

Communication, transportation, warfare, medicine--every area of our civilization that is touched by or is fully in the clutches of technology--are all changing at an accelerating pace. Their evolution is visible to us, and because we are aware of the changes, we can become active participants in the process.

Fast Forward

A recent development in photography has the look of a major shift that could redirect the technology's (art's) history. Conventional photography uses film to record views of the world by way of light that is passed through a glass or plastic lens. The key is the silver salts embedded in the film that darken when exposed to light. Wet chemical development reveals the shadows that are then reversed on paper. The process is very old--the first photograph was taken by Niepce in 1826. Digital photography, on the other hand, uses a sensor chip instead of film, but it also looks through a glass lens. There similarities end. The chip translates light to electricity and sends it to a flash memory card that can download its remembrance of the sight to computer, printer, or even a television monitor, Instead of blackened silver, it sees and sends 0s and 1s.

The significant recent development was the announcement in February by Dr. Carver Mead of Foveon of its new digital sensor that will match or surpass the resolution and true color rendering of traditional 35mm film. Until now, the advantage that has shored up traditional film against digital competition has been its quality. Digital sensors just couldn't produce pictures that were as good as those from film. According to some analysts, the new Foveon X3 sensor will completely transform the industry. Other experts have already predicted the eventual demise of plastic film, and when you consider the convenience of digital photography (you can see the results immediately, edit in the camera, retouch on your computer, e-mail copies with the tap of a button, not have to buy film, and so on), there seems to be a hard left turn ahead for photography.

Involved Evolvees

What's interesting about this evolutionary change is that we have been made aware of it in the present--as a cause, not an effect. Those whose economic destiny is tied to the industry can plan. And certainly people at places like Kodak are busy with new strategies. Founded in 1892, the company is understandably wedded to the roll film its founder George Eastman developed. When I spoke to a company representative about Kodak's interest in the Foveon sensor for their cameras, the spokesman did remind me, in passing, of the wide popularity of the disposable cameras that use film. Later, as I thought about the entrenched market for these cameras, I recalled the first pocket calculators. At their debut, few imagined then that those little marvels would one day be so inexpensive and so common they would become promotional giveaways. The same is already happening with digital cameras. They are given away with computers, are incorporated into PDAs, and will soon be everywhere.

Along with the Kodaks and the Fujis, middlemen have also been given a heads up. Those shops that develop and print, those that manufacture chemicals and supplies like negative holders and enlargers, the professionals who take portraits and shoot weddings--they all have an idea of what's coming. And now that a sensor can match film's color and resolution, a potent catalyst has been tossed into the mix. All concerned can benefit from an evolutionary process that casts its shadow before it.

But what about us ordinary consumers? As with most technologies that are complex and somewhat mysterious, the temptation is to just sit back and wait for the benefits of the new photography to show up. A natural response, but not always a good idea. Along with the benefits of cheaper, better photos that are easier to send, store, duplicate, and display, there's a darker side to leaving the world of the silver halide print. As digital cameras become cheaper and easier to use, the ubiquity of the technology might become problematic. Giveaway cameras, cameras in your cell phone, in PDAs, in pens, attached to hats as a gag--cameras everywhere! Now's the time to consider this side of the photo evolution. Those who think about and legislate privacy policies should lift up their heads and look around because we might be headed toward a digital-eyes-everywhere world.

Many complain that the world is moving too fast. In the way technology is evolving, that might not be such a bad thing. The faster a technology changes, the more aware we are of where it is going. And guessing where we're headed can let us have some say in the process and maybe even the direction. It certainly isn't that way with wet-cell evolution. Ever remember being asked whether you wanted an appendix?
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Author:Castelluccio, Michael
Publication:Strategic Finance
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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