Given that you’re using the internet to read this, you’ve probably seen a stock photo today. In fact, I know you have; there’s one at the top of this page. Stock images, notoriously cheesy and sometimes even offensive, nevertheless have their uses. How do you illustrate an abstract theme like computer security, or big data, or cloud storage? You go to a stock image site and find a suitable expressionistic or generic symbol.
But technology is also an area in which stock photos suffer, thanks to another trademark characteristic: they get outdated way too fast. The speed of technological obsolescence renders stock photos very antiquated, very quickly.
Take a search I did earlier this week to illustrate a piece on data protection. Among the images for “data” were the expected USB sticks and abstract concept art, but there was no shortage compact discs: a CD with a band-aid on it (apparently signifying a “software patch”); a CD in a disk drive (or “audio equipment tray,” according to the caption); a conceptualisation of a laser burning information onto a CD.
As if to prove the point, a search for “CD” included an image of a vinyl record and one of a video cassette on the first page of results.
Calculators—the old-school kind, not the ones integrated onto your laptop or phone—were also popular in my “data” search, often pictured next to other analog tools like pens and paper (how quaint). A search for “data journalism” was particularly heavy on the newspaper; while the real world has flashy animated data visualisations and interactive infographics, the world of stock photos is stuck in the era of print. And all that despite them being used in online media more than anywhere else.
Admittedly, part of that is probably because we still fall back on old-fashioned analogies to envisage new tools, even tending to name our new devices after low-tech equivalents. See an image of a physical newspaper, and it’s easy to grasp that the story is something to do with journalism; see some sort of image of a web news site and it’s not so obvious. Likewise with data; analog versions are just easier to visualise. Images of old tech aren't necessarily old themselves. That’s how you end up with anachronistic pictures of floppy disks featuring the bitcoin symbol.
But the pervasive presence of out-of-date tech in our image libraries is also a symptom of how quickly we move on, and how quickly what was new looks old. Search for someone using a computer, and most images featuring a desktop just look out of place. And the more ubiquitous and iconic a product—a particular smartphone, say—the faster it seems to lose relevance, as new models come in and old ones get, well, old.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to tech; fashions change too, and even the lighting effects and angles used in the photos can make the difference. But it’s particularly evident in tech, where old formats aren’t just old-fashioned, they’re obsolete outside of retro reemergences.
In some ways, it’s a comfort to know that in our fast-paced world of exponential change and planned obsolescence, a record of our technological legacy will remain. Long after we’ve thrown out our videotape collections and uploaded our books to our e-readers—and upgraded our smartphones to smart contact lenses and replaced our friends with holograms, or whatever it is the future holds—we’ll still have a reminder of our once-cherished gadgets in the form of stock photo collections; illustrated time capsules of the formats and devices that once were.