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FastForward: Pixel Culture

By Published on .

It won't get the ink DNA's semi-centennial garnered last year, but another anniversary is here, commemorating an invention that has also profoundly changed how we see the world and ourselves.

This year, the pixel is turning 50.

In 1954, mathematicians and engineers at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study created the first computerized image on a computer the size of a Manhattan apartment.

Those primitive Princetonian pixels literally the filaments of the machine's vacuum memory registers marked the start of a sea change in how we represent and view our surroundings. We've since learned to shape pixels to reflect the real world, even as we re-fabricated society to more closely approximate those phosphorescent dots. They became both mirror and lens, reflecting and shaping reality.

The result is a culture matched to the kinds of certainties pixels render. Consumer goods on the shelves at Wal-Mart or Target bear traces of the 3-D rendering program used to envision them. Many contemporary products could hardly be imagined without pixels.

Ironically, a critical part of the social history of pixels involves their gradual disappearance. From luminescent blobs on a screen, to points of light too small to see, the pixel slowly loses mass as it gains verisimilitude.

Along the way, parts of our culture became tied to ever-shrinking pixels. Generations of kids have built their social identities on the dimensions of their computer screens. I, for instance, belong to the low-rez generation: thirtysomethings who grew up with Apples and Commodores, 200300 pixel screens, 16-color displays, and the first home videogame consoles.

Today, it's nearly impossible to see the pixels that we in the low-rez generation first witnessed. Experiencing them at first was a feat of mental construction as much as it was an act of visual perception. Hinted at by clever design and completed by our imaginations, a few gray pixels in a videogame could suggest a deep shadow around a character, implying a sun, a surface, a physics a whole world in a few carefully placed dots.

The second dimension of the social history of pixels is how they came to be interposed between us and the world, generating reality as they reflect it. Almost as soon as we could imitate a bit of physical truth with pixels, we used them to create new objects in the real world. As pixels got better, so did products. In many ways, the story of the last 25 years of industrial design, architecture and engineering has been the story of ever-more powerful pixels. Look at products from the 1980s and you'll see the boxy, angular limits of low-rez. The sloping, blobby architecture and fluid, ergonomic products of the 1990s could emerge only later, when pixels became powerful enough to adequately capture their sloping Bezier curves.

As pixels disappear from view, reshape our material world and extend our conception of science, they leave us with a changed sense of reality. It is not just that pixels can enhance experience better than any drug one only has to watch the special effects scenes in any movie 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 3-D 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. Those artifacts and perceptions are our truth.

Now that members of Gen Low-rez are old enough to be in positions of influence in media, it should hardly surprise anyone that the low-rez style has re-emerged. In old videogames or on the newest music video, nostalgia for the low-rez world is at an all-time high. It shows up explicitly in post-postmodern corporate identities, and appears obliquely in the saturated, limited color palettes of many designers.

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 Pac-Man and Atari T-shirts, icons of low-rez youth. Tomorrow, members of the mezzo-rez generation will likely pine for artifacts of their 640480, 16-bit color screens.

To illustrate: I once stood in a crowd of younger people who were meeting Bill Clinton at a fund-raiser. My God, said one, upon catching sight of the president, He looks so f@!%ing high-rez.

Andrew Zolli of Z + Partners, is a forecaster and design strategist, and can be reached at andrew@zpluspartners.com

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