Pixels: Advanced Technology Indistinguishable from Reality?

In 1954, I was seven years old, Elvis Presley cut his first record, the transistor radio was invented (I owned one very soon afterwards!), and the "pixel" invaded Western culture, or so some say. Certainly, for the last 25 years, much of the story of architecture, industrial design, and engineering has been the story of pixels. Now, an ever increasing amount of "the world" we see is on digital screens, in pixels.

At first it did seem like magic. Sometimes you had to strain to see what the squared-off dots were representing. Over time pixels, while still there, have at the same time begun disappearing: "From early luminescent blobs on a screen, to points of light too small for the human eye to register, the pixel has been slowly dematerializing, losing mass and gaining verisimilitude." (See "Pixelvision," linked later on.) At first it was magic, and now it is becoming our reality.

For more technical details, read the definition of "pixel," in Wikipedia.

A pixel (a contraction of picture element) is one of the many tiny dots that make up the representation of a picture in a computer's memory. Usually the dots are so small and so numerous that, when printed on paper or displayed on a computer monitor, they appear to merge into a smooth image. The colour and intensity of each dot is chosen individually by the computer to represent a small area of the picture. Pixel is sometimes abbreviated px or pel (for picture element), although pel sometimes refers to sub-pixels.

I have some issues with calling 1954 the birth date of the pixel. For one thing, I've seen images of moving picture marquees with "pixilated" displays from at least the 1940s. You know, the origin of seeing "your name in lights." I can still recall my younger sister insisting that I was a Martian because I would sit in front of our black and white television and stare at the "test pattern." And the art form known as "pointillism" has been around for quite some time. However, in common usage "pixel" now means "digital pixel," so I'm taking on that terminology without further discussion. So the digital pixel (pixel) is said to have been born in 1954 at Princeton. But wait, although the first pixels were displayed on a computer screen at Princeton, wasn't it researchers at Yale who coined the term "pixel?"

Whatever, it's not pertinent, really, to thinking about what pixels mean to us. If you'd like to see images of what is claimed to be the very first digital pixel display, which was, (As my friend Howard Strauss would say, "of course") at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, you can view them near the beginning of this article: Pixelvision: A Meditation.

Just for fun, PixelGala.org ran a contest last year during which artists celebrated the 50 years since 1954 by creating pixilated images to celebrate one or another famous thing that occurred in each of the past 50 years. It's an interesting diversion.

Maybe I am a child of pixels, because I have always thought them to be magical, ever since I first heard the term. But in researching this article, all the magic--I mean all the magic--went out of the word "pixel" for me. I had always thought that it was derived in some way from the same language elements as the word "pixie," which certainly lends a magical air to the word. Instead, I discovered that it is a simple combination of two words: "picture element."

I derived the title of this piece from a quotation from Arthur C. Clarke, one that is often on my mind: "Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic." Clarke might just remind us that pixels, the original pixels that is, were both real and magical. The earliest humans, gazing at Orion's Belt or the Big Dipper, imagined in them entire religions and mythologies, with a resolution (pixels per square observable inch) far less than any of us now see on our various screens.

Did they distinguish with any more clarity than we do now, what is the difference between the real world and the world represented by pixels?

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