Let’s try a thought experiment.
This one comes via Buckminster Fuller: imagine you have a length of nylon rope, which you splice into a length of cotton rope, then into another length of hemp rope. If you tie an overhand knot in the rope, and push it down, through all three kinds of ropes, the knot remains a knot. The material is irrelevant, because the knot is just a pattern that has a specific set of guidelines for itself. Fuller wrote that “a pattern has an integrity independent of the medium by virtue of which you have received the information that it exists.” That is to say, if you push the knot all the way to the end of the rope, until it falls off the end, there’s no more knot, but the pattern integrity of “knot” remains the same.
People, Fuller argued, are the same way: our cells constantly regenerate, leaving us rarely made up of the same stuff from one moment to the next. Our pattern integrity — our identity, if you will, or our personhood — never changes, even if the material substrate does: “every human is a unique pattern integrity temporarily given shape by flesh.” I suppose this could be construed as a kind of “soul” for those who swing that way, but it’s more fun to extrapolate it to technologies that even Bucky couldn’t anticipate.
Computer graphics, for example. A cursor, as it circulates the operating environment, has no clearly definable boundaries: it is not a self-contained object. Rather, like the knot in Buckminster Fuller’s rope, it’s a pattern moving through an conducting material — pixels, in this case. Every pixel has the potential to become part of the current embodiment of “cursor,” but no specific set of pixels can be delineated as being solely “cursor.” All pixels are potential, and every graphic element on a computer screen — from text to YouTube videos — has a patten integrity all its own.
We are habitually fooled by our computer screens into believing that the things we see on them are discrete objects. However, it’s a necessary illusion: if we thought of our cursors as simply a set of pixels temporarily embodying the form of “cursor,” and our screens as a flood of potential units, we wouldn’t be able to see the forest for the trees — just like when you pressed your nose up against the TV screen as a kid and saw it all as lines of red, green, and blue.
Thinking about this has led me to wonder if there is a future beyond pixels. Pixels, surprisingly, have an interesting past (did you know we were one smart neologist away from forever calling them “Bildpunkt”?), and they were a somewhat logical entrée into the world of computer graphics: “Little pieces making up a big picture? What, like the real world? OK, we can wrap our heads around that.”
Richard F. Lyon, Pixels and Me, Lecture at the Computer History Museum
As our standards for realism demand more and more pixels, smaller and smaller subtleties, will we ever break through completely? Of course, we have vector graphics, which store image information as a set of scalable mathematical relationships rather than a simple assemblage of resolution-dependent pixels. Vector graphics, in style and substance, come closer to the Bucky Fuller approximation of “pattern integrity:” they literally store images as a set of patterns completely independent of their display, and amenable to any display. The image remains the same — the pattern integrity remains the same, if you will — regardless of the size, position, or resolution of the display.
Traditional (Raster) graphics, with their DNA of fixed pixels, can be zoomed into and seen, understood, in the same way we can zoom into objects in the real world and understand that they are made of atoms. This seems logical to us, correct. But it’s the pattern-respecting Vectors that are truer to the nature of the “real” world, for they seem to have caught onto something more ephemeral and hidden about reality.
Still, these are just pixels used differently. What if screens moved beyond the pixel entirely, presenting images in a kind of infinitely subtle gradient of tones? At this point, the pattern integrity of “knot” (or “cursor”) would remain the same, but what will have happened to the rope?