Pixelvision: A Meditation
by Andrew Zolli / for Core77
It's been fifty years since Albert Watson and Francis
Crick (with the under-appreciated assistance of Rosalind Franklin)
deduced the structure of DNA in a laboratory in Cambridge, England.
The recent anniversary of their achievement, which arrived conveniently
close to the beginning of the 21st century, sent the media into
an orgasm of hyperbole. "The biological century is upon us,"
intoned one representative newsmagazine. "Expect miracles."
Now another anniversary is approaching, which, no less than the
discovery of the double helix, has profoundly changed how we see
the world and ourselves. This one probably won't attract the hype
or hyperbole of DNA's semi-centennial, but it should.
Next year, the pixel is turning fifty.
Though it may seem like a more recent creation, the pixel first
appeared in New Jersey in 1954, the same year that Elvis cut his
first record and the transistor radio was invented. At Princeton's
Institute for Advanced Study, mathematicians and engineers created
the first computer graphic--and the first instance of digital typography--on
a computer the size of a Manhattan apartment.
The IAS's eminent historian, George Dyson, has rescued
these forgotten images of the first pixels ever made. Source: Institute
for Advanced Study, 1954
The Princetonian pixels were as primitive as one could imagine--literally
the glowing filaments of the machine's vacuum memory registers--but
they marked the beginning of a sea-change in how we represent and
see the world. Over the next five decades, we learned to shape our
pixels to better reflect the 'real' world, even as we re-fabricated
the world to more closely approximate those phosphorescent dots.
The pixel became both a mirror and a lens, reflecting and shaping
our reality. The result is a contemporary world more closely matched
to the kinds of certainties pixels alone can render.
The social history of pixels has several interwoven themes. The
first of these, ironically, concerns pixels' gradual disappearance.
From early luminescent blobs on a screen, to points of light too
small for the human eye to register, the pixel has been slowly dematerializing,
losing mass and gaining verisimilitude.
Along the way, significant parts of our culture became tied to
our ever-shrinking pixels. Generations of youths constructed their
social identities by their computer screen's dimensions. I, for
instance, belong to the 'low-rez' generation; a group of 30-somethings
that grew up with Apples and Commodores, 200x300 pixel screens,
16-color displays, and the first ever home videogame consoles.
It is nearly impossible to 'see' the pixels that we in the low-rez
generation witnessed, because experiencing them the first time around
was a feat of mental construction as much as it was an act of visual
perception. Hinted at by clever graphic design and completed by
our childhood imaginations, three grey pixels next to an on-screen
object became a deep shadow, implying a sun, a surface, a physics--a
whole world suggested by a few carefully placed dots.
That was the paradox at the heart of those pixels--indeed, in all
pixels before and since. For, while they promised a meticulous exactitude,
they spoke to the messy, muddy heart of the world. Low-rezers like
me witnessed those pixels visually, in their unadorned squareness
and binary perfection--but we also experienced them symbolically,
which seemed to make them stretch and fuzz and defy their own limits.
The designer's art was to use pixels to imply a world more complicated
than they could actually contain.
The second dimension of the social history of pixels is how they
came to be interposed between us and the world, generating as much
of our reality as they reflect.
Almost as soon as we could imitate a bit of physical truth with
our pixels, we used them to create new objects in the 'real' world.
And as our pixels got better, so did our products.
In many ways, the story of the last 25 years of industrial design,
architecture, and engineering has been the story of pixels. Look
at products from the 1980's and you'll see the boxy, angular limits
of low-rez. The sloping, organic 'blobitecture' and fluid, ergonomic
products of the 90's could emerge only later, when pixels became
powerful enough to adequately capture their sloping Bezier curves.
In this way, the story of our growth and maturation as an aesthetic
society is inextricably linked to our pixels' maturation as a descriptive
medium. Pixels appeared at a moment after industrial forces
had all but eliminated handicraft goods from our lives, but before
those forces could create goods of equivalent quality. Pixels became
the catalyst for a new range of products that weren't only as good
as hand-made artifacts, but better.
And it's not just the physical that is improved and extended by
pixels. Our knowledge of the physical world itself is now almost
completely mediated through pixels. From scanning electron microscopes
to radio astronomy, pixels give weight and size and color to dimensions
of the universe beyond our perceptual systems. Science and design
have converged in one enormously important respect--they're both
now largely the art of manipulating pixels.
As pixels disappear completely from view, merge with the objects
and media they present, and extend our conception of science, they
leave us with a deeply changed sense of reality. It is not just
that pixels can enhance our experience of reality better than any
drug--one only has to watch the special effects scenes in any move
to see that. Rather, pixels have introduced the idea that reality
is inherently malleable; many of us can't shake the suspicion that
there's a grid of dots underneath our day-to-day lives. In the future,
the advent of 3D 'object' printers, and VR-like enhancements of
our vision will mean that even more of our artifacts--and our perceptions--will
be generated directly from pixels. And those artifacts, and those
perceptions, are our truth.
Shynola's 2002 video for "Move Your Feet"
Now that members of the low-rez generation are old enough to be
in positions of influence in the design community, it should hardly
surprise anyone that the low-rez style has re-emerged. Whether it's
the surfacing of old videogames or the latest Junior Senior video
by Shynola, nostalgia for the low-res world is at an all-time high.
It shows up explicitly in 'post-postmodern' corporate identities
and interface designs. It is referenced obliquely in the saturated,
limited color palettes that are used by many interactive designers.
And designers like the Cuban Council have taken the low-rez style
to places which we could scarcely imagine when its limitations were
The Cuban Council's Pixel People
This nostalgia for pixels is always in motion, as one 'rez generation'
inevitably gives way to the next. Today, a walk through the bohemian
sector of any major city will result in sightings of PacMan and
Atari t-shirts, icons of low-rez youth. Tomorrow, members of the
'mezzo-rez' generation will likely pine nostalgically for artifacts
of their 640 x 480, 16-bit color screens.
I once stood in a crowd of digital designers who were meeting Bill
Clinton at a fundraiser. "My God," one said, upon catching
sight of the President. He was about my age--and known for designing
bitmap screen fonts.
"He looks so fucking high-res."
Andrew Zolli is a forecaster, design strategist and author
who specializes in helping people and institutions see, understand
and act upon complex change. He runs Z + Partners (http://www.zpluspartners.com), a design and futures research think tank.