I have begun a photography project: 100 Strangers. This is a first for me, to shoot pictures with a particular purpose in mind. The challenge is simple: take 100 portraits of 100 strangers. Candids are not allowed. The project’s creator, Teppo, asks:

Want to be a better street photographer? Want to develop as a photojournalist? In order to be one you often need to have the courage to go and talk with people you don’t know.

I think this is a noble goal. I also have to ask myself about the possible causes that would generate such a project in the first place and see so many people attracted to it. What sociological forces are at play that compel one to believe that talking to strangers is a dangerous thing? Is this another example of our growing culture of fear? Are cameras somehow tools of intimidation? Have I grown so used to the anonymizing powers of technology that real face-to-face communication with real people has become foreign? Or is this just group therapy for introverts?

My friend, Princess FixIT, makes some powerful observations on shifting cultural attitudes about strangers in the last two generations. She talks about her grandmother’s trait of striking up conversations with ease. At lunch the other day as we were discussing the project, Princess stated, “Are you kidding!? Grandma did ‘100 Strangers’ every day!” My own grandmother had a very similar approach to people she just met.

Like Princess, I do think that technology has the potential for doing a considerable disservice to the art of communication. Rather than bringing people closer together I find that many technology methods often achieve the opposite. Technology anonymizes conversations, emphasizes difference and distance between us, and inserts errors and confusion where a smile, a hug or a handshake would have soothed things over.

Do we compensate for this perceived– but unrealized– distance between ourselves with ever more obsessive, self-involved technologies? We stopped writing letters and invented email because email was faster. We stopped writing email and started blogging because then we did not have to personalize and repeat the message to everyone. Just post to the blog and the onus was on the audience to find out what we were doing or what we were thinking. Or we stopped writing email and started using instant messaging, because instant messaging was even faster. We have stopped writing multi-paragraph blog entries and are now adopting µblog services like Twitter and identi.ca because blogs just have too many words. Your life is now represented in 140 characters or less. Archived forever. And we install all of these technologies in our mobile phones so they are always available.

Does all of this technological development really improve one’s quality of life? I do not think so. I think it contributes to a culture of self-obsessed introverts with chronic attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Welcome to the anoniverse. Now if someone would just be so kind as to show me the way out, I’d like have a real conversation. With someone. Anyone.

I am motivated to participate in the 100 Strangers project by the prospect of taking better photographs. I am also using the project as a way of disrupting the culture of anonymity. That is to say, I believe technology has made you and me shier, less approachable, and more cowardly than would like. I am going to change. Myself.

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