I recently downloaded one of those camera apps that makes you wait a few days before you can access the photos. The delay reminds me of waiting to get photos developed as a kid and makes the whole process more enjoyable. But aren’t I supposed to use technology to make things faster and more efficient? Am I deluding myself by trying to somehow live in the past? 


Dear Focused—

It’s difficult to talk about cameras without also talking about time. Photography is an attempt to outwit the clock and the calendar, an art that, as the film critic André Bazin once put it, “embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.” Even as the technology grows more sophisticated, cameras maintain some of their ancestral trappings, as though they too are frozen in time. The capture button on your phone’s camera app still makes the mechanical clack of a physical shutter. The filters fade images and alter the color palette, mimicking an aging process to which digital photos are immune.

With that said, I’m doubtful that simple nostalgia led you to download this app. If you’d wanted to entertain the fantasy of living in the past, you could have easily hopped on eBay or headed over to a second-hand shop, those graveyards of analog technologies, and picked up an old SLR. My guess is that the app is satisfying a more specific desire, that the wait itself is the primary draw.

Most of us, of course, have the opposite instinct. It’s well known that people usually opt for immediate pleasures, even when waiting costs less or offers a greater reward. This cognitive bias, which is known in behavioral economics as “hyperbolic discounting,” is so basic to human nature that it is dramatized in our earliest myths. (Faced with the choice between an apple and immortality in paradise, Adam and Eve chose the forbidden fruit.) If anything, the speed of contemporary life has only further diminished our ability to wait. The one-hour photo boom that coincided, in the late 1970s, with the invention of the mini lab is a prime example of how profitable impatience can be for those who know how to exploit it. Customers proved willing to pay almost twice as much to get their film developed in 60 minutes as opposed to several days. “We live in an instant-gratification society,” one early mini lab owner told The New York Times. “We want things now.”

You strike me, Focused, as one of those rare souls who is capable of monumental self-control, the kind of person who is willing to forgo the $50 offered now in favor of the $100 promised later. It’s a trait that is undoubtedly useful in many situations, though in the case of the camera app, there’s no real virtue in delayed gratification. The reward does not increase with time; you get the same photos. In a sense, your desire to wait is even more irrational than hyperbolic discounting, which has, at least, an evolutionary advantage (those who decline life-sustaining rewards might not live to see more distant ones).

For people like you, economics and marketing psychology will be less helpful, I think, than philosophy. Bertrand Russell noted as early as 1930 that the endless novelties of modern existence could become tiresome. “A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure,” he wrote. Russell believed that instant gratification had eradicated our ability to endure those periods of boredom and idleness that made pleasure truly enjoyable, just as long winters increase the joy of spring’s arrival. We are creatures of the earth, he writes, and “the rhythm of Earth life is slow; autumn and winter are as essential to it as spring and summer, and rest is as essential as motion.” The irony is that in cultures that are intently focused on the “now,” promising to fulfill any whim instantaneously (a guarantee echoed in the names of the major photo-sharing platforms: Instagram, Flickr), it becomes difficult to actually enjoy the present, so fixated are we on the next entertainment, the next post, the next dopamine hit.

I imagine, Focused, that you might be feeling some of that exhaustion. Perhaps choosing to wait for your photos is an attempt to escape the tyranny of pleasure, to exempt yourself from the daily grind of novelty that threatens, like the eternal scroll of the newsfeed or the bottomless well of search results, to go on forever. The speed with which we can now produce and access images comes with burdens of its own. The duty to immediately scrutinize, edit, and share the photos you’ve taken often prevents you from fully experiencing the moment that was presumably beautiful enough to capture.

Traditionally, even those innovations designed to accelerate the pace of life have brought with them unexpected pockets of idleness. The one-hour photo lab generated an awkward interval, too short for many errands, that some customers probably filled by taking a stroll around town or wandering over to the park for a cigarette. The MP3 introduced a five-minute window of download time (can we ever have waited so long for music?) during which you could write an email or make a cup of coffee. The author Douglas Coupland once wrote about “time snacks,” moments of “pseudo-leisure created by computers when they stop responding.” Our snacks have become more meager over the years, reduced to those fleeting seconds when our gaze drifts away from the screen while waiting for a page to refresh or an app to download, though the reprieve 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 halt, rendering us helpless, granting us permission to be still. The delay imposed by your camera app is an attempt to capture and extend those moments of forced indolence—to “embalm” them, so to speak.