Alvy Ray Smith’s book review: We’re filled with digital light

on A Biography of Pixel, Smith’s goal is to lay the clear path to two important, interconnected stories. The first story is the evolution of computer images, from origin to digital ubiquity. There were, as Smith said, many names, places, and developments that were missing from the record, and he took the job of adding them back to the eye of an engineer for accuracy. The second story, which reveals similarities, is about the effect of images — a rapid transformation that Smith calls “Digital Light.” It covers basically everything we experience through screens, and he argues convincingly that it is one of the most important innovations in human communication since the first simple depictions of everyday life were carved into the walls. in caves.

The humble pixel

As Smith has repeatedly shown, too much credit is allowed to slide into the supposed magic of individual geniuses. The reality is a muddy, overlapping history of groups of inventors, working alternately in competition and in collaboration, often ad hoc and under sufficient commercial or political pressure.

Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers in France, for example, were great promoters and exploiters of early film technology. Both showed the full system circa 1895 and were happy to claim full credit, but were unable to make the first complete system of camera, film, and projector all (or even most) on their own. The real answer to the question of who invented the movies, Smith wrote, is a “briar patch” of competing lines, with parts of the system developed by Edison’s former colleagues and similar features of some French inventors who worked with the Lumières.

Among the key figures transferred to the trash of history were William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (a strange European aristocrat who designed and built the first movie camera for Edison) and Georges Demenÿ (whose design was copied without credit. in Lumières). Smith points out that perhaps too much of his entire job of rescuing confusing origin stories — there are the same confusing turmoil in every major stage in the development of computers and graphics — but the his efforts to correct the historical record are commendable.

The main disadvantage of all this conflict over the egos and greed of some generations of powerful people (they are, alas, almost all people) is that it sometimes distracts Smith’s focus from his larger theme, which is what the dawn of Digital Light represents as such. a dramatic change in the way people live that deserves to be described as contemporary.

Digital Light, in Smith’s simplest sense, is “any image composed of pixels.” But that technical phrase undermines the total import of the “great new realm of the imagination” created by its rise. That realm includes Pixar movies, yes, but also video games, smartphone apps, laptop operating systems, crazy GIFs sold through social media, deadly serious MRI images examined by oncologists, the touch screens at the local grocery store, and the digital models used to plan missions to Mars that would then send out more Digital Light in the form of shocking images of the face of the Red Planet.

And that hardly starts to cover everything. A unique aspect of Smith’s book is that it invites us to step back far enough from the constant flow of pixels that many of us spend most of our waking hours looking to see. what a high technological breakthrough and powerful cultural force in all this Digital Light. represents.

Fourier contributes to the understanding that everything we see can be described as the number of successive waves. Or, as Smith said more poetically, “The music world. It’s all waves. ”

The technological advancement that makes all this possible is, as Smith’s title suggests, the humble pixel. The word itself is a portmanteau of the “image element.” Simple enough. But the pixel has been mischaracterized in popular use to target the blurry, blocky supposed downside of poorly rendered digital images. Smith wants us to understand that it is, however, the building block of all Digital Light — a miraculous, impossibly different, infinitely replicable piece of information technology that is literally changing how we see the world. .

The misunderstanding, Smith explains, begins with the fact that a pixel is not square, and it is not arranged with other pixels in a neat grid. Pixels can be rendered on displays as such, but the pixel itself is “a sample of a visual field … digitized into pieces.” The difference may sound esoteric, but it is important in Smith’s argument for the revolutionary effect of the pixel. Pixel stored information can be displayed on any device as Digital Light. And digital devices can do this because the pixels are not approximated but carefully calibrated. samples in a visual field, translated for digital devices into a collection of overlapping waves. These pixels, Smith wrote, are not visual field reductions like “an extremely clever repack to infinity.”

The new wave

The process by which a pixel can generate Digital Light — whether in the form of screen words or icons on a smartphone or Pixar movie on the big screen — is built on three mathematical breakthroughs that precede the modern computer. The first of these was achieved by Jean Joseph Fourier, a French aristocrat and regional governor under Napoleon in the early 1800s. Fourier contributes to the fundamental understanding that not only sound but heat and everything we see and much more can be described as the sum of a series of waves, representing different frequencies and amplitudes. Or, as Smith said more poetically, “The music world. It’s all waves. ”

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