Alvy Ray Smith Book Review: We’re Inundated With Digital Light


In A biography of the pixel, Smith’s goal is to clearly trace the trajectory of two important and intertwined stories. The first story is the development of computer images, from origin to digital ubiquity. There are many names, places and breakthroughs in Smith’s account missing from the recording, and he took it upon himself to add them back with an engineering eye for accuracy. The second story, which runs in parallel, concerns the impact of these images – a transforming force that Smith calls “Digital Light”. It essentially encompasses everything we experience through screens, and it convincingly argues that it is one of the most important innovations in human communication since the first simple representations of everyday life were engraved on the walls of the caves.

The humble pixel

As Smith repeatedly demonstrates, far too much credit has been given to the alleged magic of individual geniuses. Reality is a muddy, interlocking story of groups of inventors, working in turn in competition and collaboration, often ad hoc and under considerable commercial or political pressure.

Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers of France, for example, were great promoters and exploiters of the first cinematographic technologies. Both exhibited complete systems around 1895 and were happy to claim all the credit, but neither built the first complete camera, film, and projector system all (or even most) on their own. The real answer to the question of who invented the films, Smith writes, is a “heather zone” of competing bloodlines, with parts of the system developed by former Edison partners and similar parts by a handful of. ‘French inventors who worked with the Enlightenment.

Among the crucial figures relegated to the dustbin of history were William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (a strange European aristocrat who designed and built the first film camera for Edison) and Georges Demenÿ (whose design was copied without credit by the Enlightenment. ). Smith may be showing too much of his exhaustive work to save these convoluted origin stories – there are similarly tangled confusions at every major stage of computer and graphics development – but his efforts to set the record straight. hour are admirable.

The main downside to all of this feud with the ego and greed of several generations of powerful men (they are, alas, practically all men) is that it sometimes distracts Smith’s attention from his larger theme, to know that the dawn of Digital Light represents such a rare change in the way people live that it deserves to be described as historic.

Digital light, in Smith’s simplest definition, is “any image made up of pixels.” But this technical expression underestimates the full importance of the “great new realm of the imagination” which was created by its rise. That domain encompasses Pixar movies, yes, but also video games, smartphone apps, laptop operating systems, goofy GIFs traded via social media, deadly serious MRI images reviewed by oncologists, local grocery store touch screens and digital models used to plan missions to Mars which then reflect even more digital light in the form of stunning images of the surface of the Red Planet.

And that’s just starting to cover it all up. One striking aspect of Smith’s book is that it invites us to take enough distance from the constant stream of pixels that many of us spend most of our waking hours staring at to see what a towering technological achievement and what powerful cultural force all this digital light represents.

Fourier contributed to the idea that everything we see could be described as the sum of a series of waves. Or, as Smith puts it more poetically, “The world is music. It’s just waves.

The technological breakthrough that made all of this possible is, as Smith’s title suggests, the humble pixel. The word itself is a portmanteau word of “picture element”. Quite simple. But the pixel has been poorly characterized in popular usage to refer to the supposedly blurry and blocky inferiority of poorly rendered digital images. Smith wants us to understand that it is rather the cornerstone of all digital light, a miraculous, incredibly diverse and endlessly reproducible information technology that has literally changed the way we see the world.

The misunderstanding begins, Smith explains, with the fact that a pixel is not a square and is not arranged next to other pixels on a sharp grid. Pixels can be rendered on screens as such, but the pixel itself is “a sample of a visual field … which has been digitized into bits”. The distinction may sound esoteric, but it’s crucial to Smith’s argument about the pixel’s revolutionary impact. Pixel is stored information that any device can display as digital light. And digital devices can do this because the pixels are not approximations but carefully calibrated. samples of a visual field, which has been translated for digital uses into a collection of superimposed waves. These pixels, Smith writes, are not so much reductions in the visual field as “an extremely intelligent repackaging of infinity.”

The new wave

The process by which a pixel generates digital light, whether in the form of words on a screen or an icon on a smartphone or a Pixar movie on the big screen, relies on three mathematical advances prior to the modern computer. The first of these was made by Jean Joseph Fourier, a French aristocrat and regional governor under Napoleon in the early 1800s. Fourier contributed to the fundamental idea that not only sound but warmth and all that we see and many others could be described as the sum of a series of waves, representing various frequencies and amplitudes. Or, as Smith puts it more poetically, “The world is music. It’s just waves.


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