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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" by Shynola

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 norm.

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.
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