Why do I love waiting for my smartphone photos to “develop”?

Support Request:
You recently downloaded a camera app that makes you wait a few days before you can access the photos. The delay reminds me of waiting to develop pictures as a kid and makes the whole process more fun. But shouldn’t I use technology to make things faster and more efficient? Am I deluding myself by trying to somehow live in the past?


Dear Focus –

It’s hard to talk about cameras without talking about time, too. Photography is an attempt to deceive the clock and the calendar, an art that, as film critic Andrei Bazin once said, “embalms time, and simply saves it from its rightful corruption.” Even with the further development of technology, cameras preserve some of the trappings of their ancestors, as if they were also frozen in time. The shutter button in your phone’s camera app still makes the mechanical click of the physical shutter. Filters fade photos and change the color palette, mimicking the aging process that digital photos are immune to.

With that said, I doubt simple nostalgia prompted you to download this app. If you want to indulge in the fantasy of living in the past, you could easily navigate eBay or head to a second-hand store, cemeteries of analog tech, and pick up an old SLR. I think the app fulfills a more specific desire, and the wait itself is the primary draw.

Most of us of course have the opposite instinct. It is well known that people usually choose immediate pleasures, even when waiting is less expensive or offers a greater reward. This cognitive bias, known in behavioral economics as “excessive discounting,” is so fundamental to human nature that it was embodied in our earliest myths. (Faced with the choice between the apple and eternity in heaven, Adam and Eve chose the forbidden fruit.) If anything, the speed of contemporary life has diminished more than our ability to wait. The one-hour photo boom that coincided, in the late 1970s, with the invention of the tiny lab is a prime example of how profitable impatience can be for those who know how to exploit it. Clients proved willing to pay nearly double the amount to develop their film in 60 minutes versus several days. One of the first small lab owners said: “We live in a society that pleases everyone New York times. “We want things now.”

You shock me, focused, as one of those rare spirits capable of tremendous restraint, the kind who would be willing to forego the $50 offered now for the $100 I promised later. It’s an undoubtedly useful feature in many situations, although in the case of the camera app, there is no real virtue in delaying saturation. The reward does not increase with time. You get the same pictures. In a sense, your desire to wait is more irrational than hyperbolic determinism, which has, at least, an evolutionary advantage (those who reject life-sustaining rewards may not live to see more of them further away).

For people like you, economic psychology and marketing would be less useful, I think, than philosophy. Bertrand Russell noted as early as the 1930’s that the endless novelties of modern existence can become stressful. He wrote, “A life full of excitement is a stressful life, in which stronger stimuli are constantly required to give the thrill that has come to be believed to be an essential part of the pleasure,” he wrote. Russell believed that instant gratification had wiped out our capacity to withstand the periods of boredom and idleness that made fun really enjoyable, just as long winters add to the joy of the arrival of spring. He writes, We are creatures on earth, and “the rhythm of life on earth is slow. Autumn and winter are as necessary to it as spring and summer, and rest is as necessary to it as movement.” The irony is that in cultures that focus heavily on the “now,” which promises to fulfill any whim instantly (a payoff guarantee in the names of major photo-sharing platforms: Instagram and Flickr), it really becomes difficult to enjoy the present, so we focused on the next entertainment, the next post The next dopamine hit.

I imagine, focused, you might feel some of that exhaustion. Perhaps choosing to wait for your photos is an attempt to escape the tyranny of pleasure, to excuse yourself from the daily grind of the new that, like the eternal scrolling of a newsfeed or endless search results, threatens to last forever. The speed with which we can now produce and access images comes with its own burdens. Often the duty of checking, editing, and sharing the photos you’ve taken on the spot often prevents you from experiencing the moment that was supposedly beautiful enough to capture it.

Traditionally, even those innovations designed to speed up the pace of life have brought with them unexpected pockets of laziness. The hour-long photo lab produced an inconvenient interval, too short for many errands, which some customers might fill by strolling around town or walking around the park for a cigarette. The MP3 file provided a five-minute window to download (can we wait too long for the music?) during which you could write an email or make a cup of coffee. Author Douglas Copeland once wrote of “snacks,” the “pseudo-leisure-times that computers create when they stop responding.” Our snacks have gotten leaner over the years, reduced to those fleeting seconds when our gaze drifts off the screen while waiting for a page refresh or an app download, though the delay is still palpable. The beauty of such moments is not unlike the relief we feel when a blizzard or a rainstorm brings life to a standstill, rendering us powerless, and giving us permission to remain still. The delay imposed by your camera app is an attempt to capture and prolong these moments of forced slack — in order to “embalm” them, so to speak.

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