Reign of Toads #3
P R I N T  A R C H I V E
[<< index]


Philosophical Implications of the Digital Sieve

In the fun world of copyright and art-ownership, direct reproduction of an artwork is illegal, except in very small collage-chunks (and sometimes not even those--cf. Negativland.) A description of that artwork, however, is perfectly fine. You have not copied it: you have paraphrased it for the purpose of relating information. Okay. So what if I describe it really well--down to the smallest detail I could manage, what if I actually listed specific measurements and used a color matching system (like Pantone's, say) to pin down the exact hue of every parcel of a personally-devised grid system? We're still describing, not reproducing, yes? But what if I take out my hand scanner and capture that image for use on my computer?

What I then have is a disk file containing a digitally-encoded 400 dots-per-inch bitmap that does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the original image. If the illustration had several shades of color, the individual pixels, the building blocks, the "words" of the image file, would also have another level of depth. Each pixel would not only represent a portion of the illustration outline, it would also impart a general sense of the intensity of color of that particular portion. Unlike a xerox or a photograph, which are both produced through physical reaction to the reflection of light waves off the three-dimensional reality of an object, a scanned image is only a digital approximation of the source image, a kind of meta-halftone breaking down the reality of actual continuous tones into a machine-readable spew of zeros and ones that--if properly recorded, stored, and interpolated--may very well pass for actual.* In the case of a 400 dpi gray scale bitmap, we would have a pretty coarse meta-halftone with a lot of lost or hastily simplified information: light waves are still involved, but light waves as interpreted by the machine.

This, then, is my big philosophical brain teaser: given the amount of information shuttling and translating and retranslating that goes on in the scanning process, is the scanned image a description of the source or is it a direct reproduction of the source? Obviously, I can scan a drawing and print it out in the pages of a magazine which would then be distributed to the eager masses. I do it all the time. The creator of the drawing would probably consider it his or her work, as would most any reader, particularly if the scan was good enough to not be immediately recognized as such. The problem of the different image file formats (or "languages" of description, let's say, though that word has been reserved for human-computer code transfers) is that they are so descriptive that, for all but semantic purposes, they have become reproduction methods.

The best part of my two-night stand with art history in college was discovering the shtick of the "conceptual artists". In order to illuminate the stupidity of art-as-object (in a media-saturated world where the vast majority of art viewers see reproductions and photos instead of the physical source of those images), they (already my lack of knowledge has lumped them together) would draw up complex descriptions of the art object, down to specific dimensions, proportions, and placement, under the theory that the moment of creative conception in which the art object is cerebrally envisioned is the art--the object is merely a teaching aid, a "Figure 1" to help illustrate the amorphous art/concept/orgasm thing. Ingenious bullshit (art-criticism-as-art) that plays better today than it did 20 years ago.**

Which brings us to CDs, technology which is also providing us with information eloquent enough that it's hard to notice what's missing from the description. The party line is that the sampling rate of CDs is so high the human ear can't detect the gaps of information in the audio waveforms--not unlike the "persistence of vision" phenomenon which allows human beings to watch motion pictures as if they weren't single images being run by in quick succession--but I posit the concept that the audio "jaggies", like the coarseness of 300 dpi laser printer output that causes eyestrain after lengthy reading, are perceivable, if only in a "persistently" intuited waveform of lost analog noise. If subliminal messages can be slipped into the cerebral cocktail by broadcasting them below conscious perception in obnoxious elevator music, and if Muzak Corp. can guarantee more productivity for corporate clients simply by upping the tempo of the easy listening soundtrack shortly after lunch to combat the afternoon workforce doldrums, then I sure as shit can listen to a triple-D recording zapped into my ears by laser magic and tell you it just sounds fucking tinny. Like Neil Young says (in Mondo 2000 #6):

If you look out the window you'll see a roof or something green. Now, imagine you're looking at sound outside, a visualization of it. You're seeing sound from a live performance--the energy and the vibrations of the whole building. Between the different colors and the way it hits you, there are so many nuances.

If you look at it through a multi-paned window, take the dominant color in one of the squares and make the whole square that color. Take away all the variety in the square, replace it with the dominant, and do the same thing with all the squares--that's digital.

It's also significant to remember when considering digital reproduction that how many and how small those squares are determines how convincing an illusion of reality is presented.

Analog recording is a harnessing of natural energy. Sound/light waves travel through the atmosphere to be picked up by microphone/ camera and etched magnetically/photochemically on a physical recording medium. With digital recording, the final information storage process is pumped through the binary sieve and ends up as an absolute, black-and-white stream of data that can be effortlessly ported from one storage area to another and endlessly duplicated without image degradation.

We live in an analog world where analog information is mutated as it is passed along by analog methods, like the rumor game where a statement is so mangled by the process of being transmitted around a circle of people that when it reaches its destination, it has become completely different. Like analog recording, the process of distortion is embedded in the final piece of information. It could not have been created without a noisy system: it's all in there somewhere. By embracing digital technology, we are eliminating accidental, environmental alterations which might actually enhance the image. Analog information is much closer to the chaos it was brought out of, it's a live wire to reality that can still be affected by that reality. Digital information can be distorted, but only through premeditation. Digital is mummified, and its corpse has been defiled by the process of mummification: it's not all in there. Some of it is missing and will always be missing. But there are many interesting forms of necrophilia that may be applied to what's left. Computer software like Adobe Photoshop can simulate different analog effects like burning and dodging a photographic print (the actual manipulation of light), and digital rack effects can simulate an overdriven tube amp (the actual inducement of electrical entropy). But it's all simulation of hands-on, matter-disturbing reality: digital information is in the can and it's not ever coming back out.

The re-production and re-presentation and re-creation of images and sounds is inherently deceptive, and the digital method thereof doubly so because it is structurally deceptive. It's not what you think it is: it's a gap-toothed plot point integral equation that is being accepted as a recording of reality. This becomes significant because media representations define a subset of reality to all but those who have directly experienced it, and now they can even override that first-person experience: People get married, videotape it, then immediately go home and watch it eleven times. The original event is soon buried by the framing and panning, the bad lighting and tinny sound, of the video. The real wedding becomes a performance of the real thing. The recording becomes the real thing. The real thing becomes the recording. When this "real thing" is digital (which video ain't--not yet [well, it is now--ed.]), the third eye becomes unfocused and, eventually, blind. This has been a public service announcement by a confirmed and ordained user of the technology in question.

--Kyle Silfer

* While a "halftone" is produced by the conversion of continuous tones to black-and-white dots, the process involves light waves passing through a physical screen to affect a photographic medium. There is no digital middle-man.

** Terence McKenna (The Archaic Revival; HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) has concluded that creativity is channeled into physical reality through individual human conduits, but broadcast from the Overmind, his version of the collective unconsciousness (or possibly space aliens). If that were true (and wouldn't it be a happy world if it were), the conceptual artists, as mere receivers--not generators--of the spark of creativity delivered by the Overmind, would appear somewhat more ridiculous than they already do, since we (in the omniversal sense) already know what they (in the who-do-they-think-they-are sense) are thinking or will think or have thought.

last update 9/21/99
Reign of Toads PO Box 40498 Albuquerque NM 87196-0498 USA