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Pixels are just a fad - and their time is nearly up

The persistence of memory. Cueva de las Manos, Argentina:
3 minute read
The persistence of memory. Cueva de las Manos, Argentina: Shutterstock

David Shapton on how, on a geological timescale, pixels will have come and gone in the blink of a shutter.

Imagine what a leap forward for humans it must have been when the first individuals started to draw and paint on cave walls somewhere between 15k and 40k years ago. Beyond being the first pictures, there was a much deeper significance. Before those original murky scrawlings, visual accounts of reality had either needed the subject to be present (a woolly mammoth to use a cliched example) or required memory.

Think about it: before pictures - art - there was nothing in the space between seeing objects or scenes and our internal recollections.

What about language? If we couldn't talk to each other, that makes it an even stranger world to imagine because how could we convey the idea that we fancy a bit of mammoth steak tonight?

What does and doesn't constitute a language is debatable. Some sources suggest that language dates back almost to the start of human differentiation from other ape species. This means it might be language that helped propel us on the trajectory that has led us to where we are now with all the prospects of hope and disaster that loom before us in the next decades

For a long time before what we would think of as representational painting, it seems likely that we would have used simple representative symbols. If you trace them back far enough, many language script systems have evolved from pictorial origins.

So language, symbols and paintings have a much deeper and more significant role in our intellectual evolution than you might initially imagine.

From the subjective to the objective

Those first cave paintings - which, remarkably, are easy for us to interpret despite their great age - are likely the start of a continuum of pictorial representation, reaching forward to the present day. What they meant for our species is that, for the first time, we could show our memories to other people. It's hard to overestimate the significance of that.

For the entire period between the first paintings and the invention of cameras, the modern distinction between painting and photography didn't, of course, exist. This meant that painting and drawing were not only for cultural fulfilment but also a means of preserving a visual record. In fact, they were the only means to record what we now know as history.

One consequence is that, before film, all of our visual records are subjective. They are influenced by the style (and the skill!) of the artists, as well as their clients' instructions. There is subjectivity in photography, but not to the same degree, because photographs tend to preserve relative dimensions and perspective. And they capture a lot more detail.

And yet, despite the technical "advantages" of photography, no one ever complained that a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh lacked resolution. No one ever said that a Monet was out of focus. And no one ever complained about Constable's lack of bokeh.

The digital age

In terms of the end product - a photograph - the invention of digital photography isn't all that significant. Today, digital cameras are technological masterpieces that can capture images with all the vibrancy, resolution and virtuosity of film, without all those chemicals. So there are now more photographs, more images, and more sharing of those pictures than ever. The digital image is well on its way to being a joined-up metaverse, although that might not be completely obvious from today's perspective.

Perhaps the biggest innovation with digital photography, and one which is essential to it, is the invention of pixels. Before digital cameras, it's unlikely that anyone ever said, "Surely the best way to depict the natural world is to impose a square grid on it and allocate a number to the average colour within each of those squares". The whole process seems about as kind to nature as feeding a daffodil through a cheese grater.

And yet, the macro effect of dicing nature into millions of pixels is a remarkable, stable, persistent fidelity that defies sceptics. Modern large-format cameras still have that wonderful creaminess and dreaminess that somehow manages to survive and flourish in a digital world, especially now that ultra-high resolutions effectively make moire and aliasing invisible.

But now, it's beginning to look like the lifespan of pixels might be limited. The rise of AI means that images can be produced from mere concepts and stored as a combination of conceptual vectors and relative weights. Digital photos can be shown to AI models and be resynthesised in a pixel-free domain. Granted, we will still need a pixellated version to see the images on our contemporary displays, but someday very soon, ironically, our images will have more in common with a cave painting than a JPEG. 

Tags: Technology