Inside Pixel Biography, Smith’s goal is to clearly set the course for two important, interconnected stories. The first story is the development of computer images, from the origin to the digital universality. According to Smith, many names, places and successes are missing from the record and he has taken on the task of reconnecting them through the eyes of an engineer for accuracy. The second story, illuminated in parallel, is about the effects of those images – a transforming force Smith calls “digital light”. It basically incorporates what we feel through the screen and he reasonably argues that it is one of the most important inventions of human communication because the first common images of daily life were carved on the walls of caves.
As Smith has repeatedly shown, the supposed magician of individual talent has been allowed to slide much more credit. The reality is that in a murky, overlapping history team of inventors, working in competition and collaboration, often in ad hoc and considerable commercial or political pressure.
The brothers of Thomas Edison and Lumiিয়re of France, for example, were great pioneers and exploiters of early film technology. Both demonstrated the entire system in 1895 and were happy to claim full credit, but neither made the first complete system of cameras, film and projectors (or even most) themselves. The real answer to the question of who invented the movie, Smith writes, is a “breeder patch” of rival dynasties, with parts of the system created by Edison’s previous partners and similar parts by a handful of French inventors who worked with Lumiere.
Key figures in the dustbin of history were William Kennedy Laurie Dixon (a strange European elite who designed and built the first movie camera for Edison) and Georges Demenia (whose design was copied without credit by Lumieres). Smith probably shows his complete work in rescuing these complex original stories – each major stage in the development of computers and graphics has similarly tangled complexities – but his efforts to straighten out the historical record are commendable.
The main flaw of all these quarrels with the arrogance and greed of a few generations of forceful men (they, alas, virtually all men) is that it sometimes diverts Smith’s focus from its larger theme, which represents the dawn of digital light. It is a rare change in the way people live their lives that deserves to be described as groundbreaking.
Digital light, in Smith’s simplest definition, means “any image composed of pixels.” But that technical phrase refers to the complete import of the “huge new state of imagination” that has been created through its emergence. The field includes Pixar movies, yes, but also video games, smartphone apps, laptop operating systems, stupid GIFs transacted through social media, deadly MRI images reviewed by cancer experts, local grocery store touch screens and digital models. Plan a Mars mission that will return more digital light in the form of jaw-dropping images of the red planet’s surface.
And that’s barely starting to cover it all. An interesting aspect of Smith’s book is that it invites us to move farther away from the constant flow of pixels which many of us spend most of our waking time looking at to see what a huge technological achievement and powerful cultural power all these digital lights have. Represents
Fourier’s insights have contributed that what we see can be described as the sum of a series of waves. Or, as Smith puts it more poetically as the phrase, “world music. It’s all waves.”
The technological advancement that has made all this possible, according to Smith’s title, is humble pixels. The term itself is a Portmanto of “photo material”. Easy enough. But the pixel has been misplaced in popular usage, to imply vague, blocked supposed inferiority of poorly rendered digital images. Smith wants us to understand that it is, rather, the building block of all digital light — a miraculous, impossibly diverse, endless replicable piece of information technology that has literally changed the way we view the world.
The misunderstanding begins, Smith explains that a pixel is not a square and that it is not aligned with other pixels in a neat grid. Pixels can be rendered on the display, but the pixel itself is “a sample of a visual field … digitized in bits.” The difference may seem mysterious, but it is crucial to Smith’s argument for the revolutionary effect of pixels. Pixels store information that any device can display as a digital light. And digital devices can do this because the pixels are not approximate but carefully calibrated. Sample Of a visual field, which has been translated into a collection of overlapping waves for digital use. These pixels, Smith writes, are not so much a reduction in the visual field as “at least a very clever repackaging”.
The process by which a pixel generates digital light – be it in the form of sound on a screen or an icon on a smartphone or a Pixar movie on a large screen – is built on three mathematical advances that preceded modern computers. The first of these was acquired in the early 1800s by Jean-Joseph Fourier, a French aristocrat and regional governor under Napoleon. Fourier contributed to the basic insight that not only sound but also heat and what we see and much more can be described as the sum of a series of waves, representing different frequencies and amplitudes. Or, as Smith puts it more poetically as the phrase, “world music. It’s all waves.”