design, essay

Infinite Squares: Seeing the Virtual

I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking about the intersection between The New Aesthetic and videogames.

Recently, Kill Screen Daily ran one of their PAUSE posts on “Variable Mirror”, a project that seeks, through a planned exhibit using increasing and decreasing pixel sizes, to explore one central issue: “Does computer-mediated vision change how we see without computers?”

Just watching the video reminded me of how bizarre our perception of reality is compared to that of computer. We see light through cones and rods. Particles hit patches of chemicals and we ‘see’ different colors and shapes. Our world is based in this idea. Design and planning decisions are rooted in how we feel about certain patterns, curving some things while leaving other thing square. We make things that spark our aesthetic appeal.

Yet, this is totally different for computers and, more specifically, robot vision. They do not see in a curved way. Theirs is a world of infinite squares. One pixel after another after another. In their memory, a matrix is laid out and computations compare one box to another. If this pixel is is not like a previously considered pixel, a decision is reached and the code branches. Everything breaks down to the binary. It either is or it is not.

The New Aesthetic seems to be about understanding, as “Variable Mirror” illustrates, the standard unit of computer-mediated vision, the pixel. And the first thing you have to understand about a pixel is that is it square. It is a box on a screen. One of thousands or millions. Depending on the technology, it is either turned “on” by light particles striking it, a scanning line changing it or electrical changes on a grid flipping a bit. It is how we ‘see’ content on a screen. We look into the virtual by, in a way, seeing the world as the computer do: we see all the changed pixels.

If you look at your screen now, as I am doing in the act of writing this, you will notice that you do not perceive the squares. They are there though. Changing in the milliseconds of even microseconds between processing input and the screen reflecting it, the pixels dance in front of us and, for some of us, we take it for granted. The text we read, the games we play and the very lives we live are all based in these tiny boxes and in understanding how to talk both with and through them.

They are not just tools. They are both medium and monstrosity. I write now on a computer and you will read it on another. During that time, and even now as the screen is refreshed, the content is stored somewhere else. It is this delay that makes us dependent on the monstrosity of the machine. Without them, we are lost. We cannot function without being watched, monitored or controlled in some way by how the other works. Our communications are entrenched in breaking apart what we say, how we make things and then moving it from place to place before, again, presenting it as pixels on the other end.

What does it mean that we have begun, in some small ways, to recognize this effect on our lives? I’m not sure. We take the crossover between the two worlds and we make things. We input our thoughts and, in some ways, they are interpreted, filtered and stored away before another can see or hear them. We mark the machines as much as they craft us. Our voices and our words are not always our own. They, like us, have been augmented in small ways. Sometimes good and sometimes bad. Which one is spilling into the other is sometimes a matter of degrees and situations.

We think of them as games insomuch that there is no better name for them. Those worlds that will, as long as the code is running, go on forever. As much as we change them, they change us. We direct our characters to avoid some things and engage with others. All pixels. And if we engage our magic circles to play in these pretend worlds, are we the pixels or do the pixels, through our interactions, decisions and expressed will in the virtual, become us?  Could our entire virtual lives be summed up in a series of boxes? We did this, we didn’t do that. How do the pixels, and the boxes they represent, present themselves to us?

There is a movement, if it can be called that, to bridge the two worlds, to bring the virtual into the physical. Part of that is a reacting to the increase of the physical into the virtual. The more simulations of reality there are, the more we both gain and lose information. The approximation of systems mean that, somewhere, we drop variables and forces that, in both small but inexorable ways, influence equations and balance out, given certain input, how events will play out. We settle for the boxes around the curves. We close off the cones.

For as much as they might be bad, we cannot abandon the machines. For some reason, we continue to make them. To build bigger devices and explore larger spaces, we make the tools we need to remake the world around us. We invest in the machines and give over something to them. We trust that, as we interact with them, they interact with us. As we store more of us in them, we are, in that act, changed too.

I’m not sure what the pixel means for us. It’s is neither a cone nor a rod. It is a square. It is the world reduced to bits, remade and stored away for later use. Is it a translation, transliteration or just a transmission? Something else completely? All of those things and more? It means something, the pixel does.

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