Imagery and Evolution

Panel, "Computer Graphics - Are We Forcing People to Evolve?"

SIGGRAPH '94, Orlando, Florida

Copyright © 1994 by the ACM

Program Summary of the Panel: The topic of this panel is a key emerging proposition in computer graphics and interactive techniques: the computer graphics industry is changing our world in a massive and basic way, from "written-word" communication to "imagery" communication, and this is changing how and what people think.

Roger Wilson, Chair

Leonard Shlain

Brenda Laurel

Terence McKenna

I want to say at the outset that I had great difficulty preparing this talk - I mean more than the usual amount. On topics of a smaller scale I have generally succeeded over the years in finding something optimistic to say. I pride myself in my positive attitude. I am very hopeful about the advent of graphical and other sensible forms of representation that have advanced so dramatically in my lifetime, and I am not at all concerned that they may end the primacy of the written word in human culture. What I can't work up much optimism for is the survival of our species. But more of that anon.

The question seems to posit that "forcing people to evolve" is a "new" thing - that is, that a cultural or technological change which cannot possibly be accommodated by "biological" evolution is something that hasn't happened to us before. Yet there is persuasive evidence that the brain lags as much as fifty thousand years behind the times in its hard-wired evolution [Donald, 1991]. This would mean that, while we may be optimized for language, we are certainly not ready for perspective painting, photography, television, or computer keyboards. Sorry folks, the shit has already hit the fan. There are two points here. One is that we do manage to adapt, even at the neurological level. The wiring of the human visual cortex is profoundly influenced by events, both biological and environmental, all the way through puberty, affecting things like ocular dominance, stereopsis, and the perception of shapes and patterns [De Valois, 1988; Sekular and Blake, 1994].

The other point is a meta-comment, which I will quote from our old friend Marshall McLuhan:

Anything that raises the environment to high intensity, whether it be a storm in nature or violent change resulting from new technology, turns the environment into an object of attention. When it becomes an object of attention, it assumes the character of an antienvironment or an art object. [McLuhan and Parker, 1968]

Such antienvironments, McLuhan believed, "open the door of perception to people otherwise numbed in a nonperceivable situation." In other words, every now and then technological change makes us wake up and notice our media environment with great surprise and alarm, and then we go to sleep again; for example, when people worry about the commodification of sex, the intensification of escapism, and the potential for mind control in virtual reality, they are describing the cultural environment of television. There may be just a touch of this phenomenon going on here.

Changes in contemporary media are certainly causing people to adapt - this is nothing new. But the Lamarckian hypothesis that adaptations which occur during the lifetime of an individual are inheritable has been shown, in most cases, to be false. In cultural evolution, the metaphorical equivalent of inheritance is education - the teaching of what has been learned and invented by previous generations. Cultural, not biological, evolution is the issue in the case of this question. The sticky wicket is that we have seen in this century that our cultural evolution may profoundly affect the survivability, not only of individuals, but of our entire species.

Here are the points in the argument that I want to address -

1. that our new media enhance our ability to create compelling representations of imaginary, unreal, or altered objects;

2. that this boosts the divergence of human experience from natural intelligence and/or the natural world; and

3. that this is a dangerous state of affairs.

I want to say a few words about each of these points.

1. that we can now create compelling representations of imaginary, unreal, or altered objects. There are two corollaries:

- that we can therefore no longer distinguish imaginary or altered objects from actual objects in representations, and

- that we can not distinguish representations themselves from actualities.

While the first point is certainly true in some cases, changes in our epistemology generally arise to counteract the effect. If this were not so, we could not laugh at the hundred-foot shark gobbling a yacht on the cover of the National Enquirer or sit still in the theatre during a screening of "Jurassic Park." Of course, we are worried here about more insidious effects - we know when images we see are imaginary but they affect us anyway, subliminally and emotionally. If this is a lethal flaw, then it has been with us for a long time - we have been making representations of the contents of our imaginations for as long as we have been Homo sapiens. We would be hard pressed to find any domain of human activity in which the imagination is not manifest and blended in some way with the actual world - from paleolithic horse-head carvings to subatomic physics.

The second point is really just a recursion on the first, that we may not even know that we are experience a representation as opposed to an actuality - the perfect VR system, for example. Whenever one of my friends finds an object that he has misplaced lying in plain view, he exclaims that he has found another bug in the simulation we're both part of. But this, too, is an old motif. Plato banished the art of theatre from his Republic because he felt that people would not be able to distinguish the representation from reality, and that this would presumably lead to poor judgment (Plato does not tell us how he handled the fact that the Republic itself was a representation).

We all know the stories about people running screaming from early films because close-ups looked like severed heads. We also know that people are remarkably good at perceiving the conventions of a representational medium almost as soon as they are invented - a kind of "instant literacy." Children who tried out the VR piece that we built last summer had no difficulty coping with "flying" - a certain level of knowledge about the medium preceded their first encounter with it. Note that this phenomenon works even when the conventions are not directly perceivable. Stand outside a showing of the latest action film and listen to people's speculations about how the special effects were achieved as they leave the theatre. Blue-screening, model effects, photo-shopping, and morphing are old news even to six-year-olds.

The second two points,

2. that the rapid growth in our ability to synthesize and alter representations boosts the divergence of human experience from natural intelligence and/or the natural world, and

3. that this is a dangerous state of affairs,

are more troubling to me. It is certainly trouble if we stray so far from the natural world that we damage it to the point that it no longer supports many kinds of life, including our own. We seem to be well on the path to doing that, but I can see no evidence that our growing ability to create new forms of representation is either good or bad except in how we use it.

A few amateur observations about evolution. It seems to me that we are the embodiment of a way of surviving, a way of being in the world, that began long before the patriarchal era and the invention of the written word. The precursors to the way we are were the invention and use of tools and weapons, but they were not sufficient to lead to us; other tool-using humanoid species died out without direct competition from our forbears. It seems to me that our history began with those traits that Stephen Jay Gould identifies as belonging uniquely to Homo sapiens - abstract reasoning and representational art. As Gould points out in his book Wonderful Life:

[Humanity is] . . . an improbable and fragile entity, fortunately successful after precarious beginnings as a small population in Africa, not the predictable end result of a global tendency. We are a thing, an item of history, not an embodiment of general principles. [Gould, 1989]

We are unlikely, not a done deal; nor would evolution predict that we are to be the forebears of an even more "intelligent" species than ourselves. Indeed, if evolution did surprise us and produce the cybernetic meta-organism that Vinge and others predict, say by a means similar to the appearance of multicellular life, I would not want to meet an organism in which Serbian soldiers were asked to serve as mitochondria. As Vinge observes, given what it's got to work with, a posthuman meta-organism might well be an almost unimaginably nasty beast [Vinge, 1993]. The story of evolution is neither the unfolding of a divine plan nor the inevitable march of sentience toward more and more spectacular manifestations; rather, extinction is the rule. We are much more likely to die out than to transform into a self-aware, infinitely smart, infinitely wise collective shrouded in white light. As far as evolutionary history would predict, the same set of traits that got us into this mess are going to have to be the ones that get us out of it - namely, abstract reasoning and representational art, and the way that they develop in their ongoing dialectic.

I will not drub you with the pre-catastrophic litany of industrialism, pollution, and destruction of the environment and all its dire consequences for the survival of our species. Suffice it to say that regarding the last fifty years of human history has been not unlike watching the Challenger accident over and over in slow motion.

Humanity is indeed an endangered species. We can sit here and be effete about it or we can get up on our hind legs and catch a couple of frisbees. Kids today can parse about five times as much information from a rapid-flow stream of video images as I can. This is part of the tragedy of the seemingly superhuman cultural literacy of teens in the "developed" world - beyond this visual alacrity, they can create, transmit, and receive personally authored information around the infosphere with relative ease; they can successfully distinguish point of view as a component of information, unlike most of their Madison-Avenue-trained parents - in short, they are in an excellent position to pull the pants off of the politics of information that has dominated the last several centuries in the service of a truly toxic turn in cultural evolution. . .

Humans are able to adapt to their media environment very well thank you, but I think we can all name - if we dare - the thing that's missing from the formula. Where is the place to stand? Where is the fulcrum from which this brave new species can conquer the bullshit of the world? What torch will guide them in their reconstruction of reality? It isn't snotty smart predictions of doom, that's for damned sure. Yes, we need eloquent foretellings of what the future may hold, with all the scary bits writ large. But for we who are alive right now, there's no way around but through. Declaiming the end of life as we know it is only half the job of the contemporary demagogue. The other is to try to see the way through.

How can young people have hope? Although it is growing blessedly un-hip in intellectual circles, the virus of deconstructionism is alive and well in American youth culture. With the bright curiosity that human children are still miraculously born with, they begin to explore. Soon they begin to hear messages about what is wrong here on Planet Earth. While their brothers and sisters in some less privileged places subscribe to the relatively simplistic prescriptions of nationalism and holy wars, the postmodern tribe begins to take things apart. They peel and peel away at the veneer of objectivity, at the hidden agendas of consumerism, at the mealy-mouthed values that short-circuit ethics into obedience - obedience to institutions that have as their goal, not the well-being of either the individual or the species, but profit and power. They peel and peel away until there is nothing left of their bright curiosity but a thin flame of cynicism, which eventually gutters out in a gust of apathy. Apathy is the "way around" that will take us extinct. This is not a portrait of all kids, or of any economic or ethnic group of kids, but of a nontrivial percentage of kids, and you can find it from Beverly Hills to Bedford-Stuyvesant.

It is not the lack of information that has done this, nor is it the disappearance of the word - the "news" plays a pivotal role in the whole sad progression. The economy sucks, politics sucks, presidents lie, sports heroes commit murder, how should I care? As Neil Postman observed, apathy proceeds, not from ignorance, but from a surfeit of information from which no action can proceed, information about things over which we have no control [Postman, 1985] - life in a world of one-way information.

One piece of potentially good news is that the decentralization that is occurring in the geopolitical sphere seems also to be happening in the world of media. The number of magazines in circulation has increased exponentially in the last five years. Students sent email and faxes from Moscow and Tienanmen Square. Teenage girls in LA are toasting video for their friends. People are producing and sharing personal journalism and authentic narratives in all media. These people work through enormous interface obscurities to get at the heartbeat of what they want to do. They are not stopped; they do what works. They make new tools. They ignore intellectual property. With any luck, and the invention or emergence of a good alternative economic model, it may be that literacy in this brave new world will not be shaped and controlled by either the owners of the infrastructure or the content providers of yesteryear. It may be shaped by the revitalization of the oldest goodest impulses of humanity: to make our experiences into stories and performances and share them with each other - the active impulses of self-revelation and creative imagination. I think that this is still the most reliable transmitter of values - long after church, TV, and politics are debunked, people will still take delight and wisdom from each other's stories.

In my lifetime, I have seen the privileged status of the written word pass on to the television, then from the television to the computer. My work with American children confirms for me that as the computer becomes more transparent the idea of any one medium having an authoritative voice is fading away. With decentralization comes repersonalization and a healthy attitude toward appropriation. One thing we can do is work toward assuring that the economics and technology of the net don't beat this impulse into submission.

Finally, I want to talk for a minute about what our new media have to do with our relationship with nature, because this seems to me to be the issue lurking at the bottom of the pond.

In Western culture, we often speak of science as being "a dialogue with nature." In The Character of Physical Law, Richard Feynman notes that both artists and scientists "appreciate sunsets, and the ocean waves, and the march of the stars across the heavens." "As we look into these things," he says, "we get an aesthetic pleasure from them directly on observation. There is also a rhythm and a pattern between the phenomena of nature which is not apparent to the eye, but only to the eye of analysis; and it is these rhythms and patterns which we call Physical Laws." [Feynman, 1967]

The scientist's analytical tools extend the domain of aesthetic pleasure from the visible to the invisible. Representational tools - from elegant equations to scientific visualizations - make the unseen patterns of nature sensible to us again. Too often, I think, we set art and science in opposition to one another. Both are intimately involved with the natural world, and both intend to make sensible representations of phenomena that are in some way unseeable or at least unseen.

In a particular sense, art is a dialogue with human nature as well. A painter's brush is in intimate relationship with a painter's hand, with the physical qualities of paint and paper, and with the eye and brain of whoever will see the painting. The technologies of an art intersect the nature of its materials, its objects, its makers, and its beholders.

Making art with computers is a difficult enterprise because computers make nature so hard to get to. They typically have no sense organs, for instance, nor do they address any of ours particularly well. They have evolved as a race of severed heads, without bodies, without a sense of pleasure, doomed by the arcana of their communication mechanisms to make extremely small talk with people who are almost as strange as they are. I see them staring vacant-eyed, impaled on pikes that surround, not the fortress of Count Vlad, but the edifice of mind-body dualism.

The idea of virtual reality is the antithesis of this state of affairs. It intends, regardless of how well it succeeds, to accommodate the body as well as the mind - in theory, it refuses to distinguish between the two at all. It makes use of the equipment that evolution has so magnificently prepared for us - namely, our ability to perceive the world from a situated and embodied point of view. VR is concerned with the nature of the body - how our senses work, how we move around, how we get the sense of being somewhere, and how the sense of physical presence affects us. Regardless of the nasty little applications to which it the military-entertainment complex is busily applying it, VR is at its root a technology which attempts to conform to nature, in opposition to one which attempts to dominate it. We do a great good as artists and makers of culture when we explore and develop this alternative potential.

Which brings me finally, to the question of artistic style in new media. Style instantiates philosophy. Style articulates a relationship with the world. It implies both a natural philosophy and a metaphysics. In artistic representations, style is the way in which these philosophical materials are used as working hypotheses in the construction of what-ifs.

In contrast to the slickly literal heavy-metal worlds of virtual entertainment, I would describe most of the artistic virtual worlds that I have seen so far as constructivist. Sometimes technological artifact and sometimes conscious choice, the imagery in such worlds is blatantly constructed. Dizzying topologies, illegible structures, surfaces with their polygons showing - sometimes even the algorithms are showing, of which a certain flavor of techno-artist is very proud. The invisible human being, sometimes iconized as a tiny floating cluster of polygons that one is told represents a hand, is reconstructed as an absence - a disembodied point of view that moves without friction, noise, rhythm, breath. In a medium that tries so hard to surround us and saturate our senses, this denial of the embodied self seems an absurd contradiction.

There are recent historical parallels here. Constructivism as a style in theatrical design is most closely associated with the Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold in the first third of the 20th century, who was reacting at least in part to the style of Stanislavski. For Method acting he substituted a theory of biomechanics, rejecting psychological realism in favor of a notion of actors a machines who would carry out the explicit directions of their operator. For the conventions of scenic realism, he substituted constructivism - the scene as a set of geometrical and mechanistic constructions that could be used by his actors in a gymnastic way. The point of these changes was to make the audience aware at every moment that they were in the theatre. His goal was to induce social action outside the theatre, not through the conventional means of empathy and suspension of disbelief, but through theatre as rhetoric, performance as the presentation of argument.

Constructivism was part of a reaction against realism and bourgeois aesthetics that rippled through all of the arts throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Many of the anti-realistic movements during this time arose in response to the political horrors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, culminating in World War I [see, for example, Gibian 1971]. If reality could be so abominable, then the world was not at all as it had been portrayed. Realism became identified existentially as well as aesthetically as a lie - that is, it employed illusions to perpetrate comfortable myths about how the world works. The deceptive nature of representations themselves had to be unmasked, and disjunctive new approaches to theatrical art - from Tristan Tzara to Bertolt Brecht - were a cultural necessary. Anger, shock, and political activism fueled the reaction against realism.

Constructivism and other anti-realistic styles intended to prevent empathy and force intellection - in a sense, severing the head of anger and judgment from the body of nature - negating the biochemistry of empathy, the need to connect, the tendency toward growth. Meanwhile, playwrights like Giraudoux and Anouilh created a more holistic alternative to realism in the form of theatrical impressionism. Impressionism in painting and photography was also influenced by 19th-century romanticism in its reverence for nature as a source of both truth and ecstasy. In contemporary fiction, film, and increasingly, computer graphics and animation, magical realism is the descendant of impressionism. The plausible portrayal of the fantastical brings people to question our constructions of the possible in terms both of nature and human agency. In another sense, magical realism is what comes after the compulsion to dismember. By representing the unseen agencies of dream, spirit, and nature as sensible actors in everyday reality, magical realism speaks of hope, healing, and reconstruction.

Magical realism is but one example of a style - a point of view - that has the power to help us envision how things might be. Like Leonardo's flying machine, our representations are indices to a possible future - a way of making technology, and a way of thinking about the world. The representations made by a culture organize its construction of the possible and galvanize its will.

For myself, as an artist and as a person, working from this point of view reveals the glimmering of a way through. For you, too, this is an actionable suggestion. After all, you are here because you are the makers of the images that the world sees and the creators of the tools that produce them. It seems to me that we must be constantly in dialogue with nature, in both the objects and the process of our work, in the way we think about the eye, the hand, the gesture, about walking, flying, seeing, seeing faces in the clouds, to know not only by unmaking but also by creating, making new, reconstructing the possible, manifesting harmony, instantiating dreams, reifying hope.


De Valois, Russell L. and Karen K. De Valois. Spatial Vision. London: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1991.

Feynman, Richard. The Character of Physical Law. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967.

Gibian, George, ed. and trans. Russia's Lost Literature of the Absurd: A Literary Discovery. Selected works of Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvendensky. New York: Norton, 1974, 1971c.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1989.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Harley Parker. Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, Penguin Books, 1985.

Sekular, Robert and Randolph Blake. Perception. Third Edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 1994.

Vinge, Vernor. "Technological Singularity." Whole Earth Review, No. 81, Winter 1993, p. 88ff.


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