Bull Hill: A Series on Philosophy, Music, and More
One of the highlights of the New York City holiday season is the opening of the temporary Wired Store, last year just around the corner from the permanent Apple Store in the trendy meatpacking district of lower Chelsea, downtown Manhattan. With more than a bit of cajoling, I managed to convince my wife to check it out with me, pulling her out of her more favored haunts right up the street, the toniest art galleries where she is often trying to flog her wares.
“It’s designed by Moby!” I implored.
“Who cares?” she responded.
What most impressed her, and I guess me too, in this temple of boy-geek technology, were the latest giant LED TV screens broadcasting super high-resolution Blu-ray versions of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth. These screens were all over the store and they were surrounded by people’s eyes glued to them, all unable to turn away.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a squirrel that big before,” she said. It’s true, this was no ordinary squirrel. It was the size of a wolf or mountain lion, crunching on a nut with digital precision. The picture was sharp in an enhanced, fractal way, looking like a computer-animated avatar of a squirrel more than the real thing. It seemed to leap out of the screen into the room. I wonder if he could find anything to eat in here if he really did come to life.
Has technology gotten so good that it is more alive than real life? Everyone knows that you see a lot more detail of nature on TV than wandering in the woods, right? And I also know that when even the very first sound recording machines were invented, people found them startlingly realistic and delighted in recounting their amazement. We are always amazed when anything we invent has the slightest success in emulating the natural world. So how come a dog loses interest in a televised squirrel after just a few minutes? If our pets aren’t fooled, why are we?
Sometimes it seems we enjoy the image more than the real thing. Or we appreciate the months in the field it takes for filmmakers to get the best possible shot of a squirrel in fabulous HD, which will doubtless seem as fuzzy to future holographic watchers as old black and white silent films seem to us. Technology is the one arena in life where there really is progress, while nature itself, well, nature is more likely to be on its last legs, forever on the run.
Technology is where the progress is, the only clear place where things always seem to be getting better, shinier, faster. Stick with obsessing about it if you always want to be happy about the next new thing. More megapixels, brighter colors, more dimensions, more sharpness, more emulation of the real with the unreal. Remember, though, the more technological the expression the more there will be room for improvement, the faster it will be out of date. Nature, timeless, developing its riffs over millions of years, will paradoxically never get old.
Some praise how nature photography is getting so much better, so much so that every issue of National Geographic includes a few readers’ photos which are equal to or exceed the quality of the images from their crack photographers. Today everyone can afford to take thousands of pictures, the way the pros in the field have worked for years. We have faster lenses, longer zooms, more autocorrect features that improve the results of fast-moving critters. We can get at wilder subjects, so new codes of ethics emerge.
Audubon resisted using a super-cute picture of a white fluffy arctic fox because a biologist said no fox in the wild would ever look that well-fed, so the image was axed on purist grounds. Photoshopping is so easy that anyone can put the animals in the frame where she wants them, whether or not she was actually there. We clamor for truth in our virtual images of nature but we are tempted by the ease by with what we shot can be improved, work with, massaged. A sound recording of an ocelot can easily be slowed down to become a jaguar… Who’s gonna know? Trust only what you can learn from nature, not from what someone claims is nature. Even the simple human gaze is already a technological act—we are categorizing, defining, setting the frame.
No wonder we are impressed by the powers of our own inventions! Of course we can also make nature come to life in ways we never dreamed. Scientists place sensors on the back of sperm whales with suction cups, and these critters dive far deep into the dark sea, do who-knows-what for several days, then they come to the surface and the sensor pops off. When we retrieve the device it has recorded all kinds of data: how the whale moved, what sounds it makes. From this data we can recreate its movements using computer animation, creating a whole moving whale trajectory what would be impossible to witness firsthand. Thus the virtual whale becomes more real to us than the actual whale, whose far-ranging movements we cannot directly follow.
Still, we must be cautious in our praise for new totalizing technologies. In his recent book You Are Not a Gadget, my friend Jaron Lanier, one of the early pioneers of the idea of virtual reality (some credit him with inventing the phrase), warns against the fact that everyone online seems to appear the same, with a similar mediated voice, no closer or farther away than anyone else. The web is the great equalizer, as it allows us to take virtual hikes through wildernesses from England’s Lake District to New Zealand’s Milford Track. Both are image-worlds you can equally conjure up with a few clicks. Nowhere is more local than anywhere else, all is captured with the same delineating device. The computer is fine as it goes, as an enhanced conduit to reality.
But the inventor of virtual reality cautions us against going much further than this: the virtual world should not be made to substitute for the real world. It is not a simulacrum, but something wholly unto itself, never the goal, but best as a means to the more important end: of connecting real people to one another, with uncommon ease. So we are much better, more real, and wholly unique in the flesh, the opposite of our Facebook profiles that make everyone equally cleanly formatted and texting in the same font. We cannot suffice to be telegram versions of our actual selves! Take it for what it is, never more…
Ah, you tell me, but look what happens. We enjoy announcing our exploits to everyone online rather than in person to our closest ones. The instant gratification of the blog beats out the careful writing and editing of the same story that might take several years to see the light of day. Today’s sudden media is faster, more diverse, overwhelming like the tangled bank of life itself. Isn’t that another way it is more real than the real?
The universe is information, life is information, everything seems to be like information if you spend all day sitting in front of a computer. Who wouldn’t want to spend every day like this? Everything is a computer these days, from cars to cameras to musical instrument. Even my cat has a chip implanted in her fur to make sure she can be ID’d by any veterinarian who happens to capture her. Try to take that collar off, kitty!
Still, I think there is something important about the fact that the most popular item in the Wired Store were the huge super-crisp images of giant Blu-ray squirrels, looking more dramatic than any of the real ones climbing outside on the grasslands of the High Line Park. When technology does take us deeper into the natural world than our own direct experiences can, it exceeds our expectations.
Look at Jaron Lanier’s favorite animal, the cuttlefish, a kind of squid. It is this underwater cephalopod, says Lanier, that actually invented virtual reality, since this is the first animal that can morph itself into new shapes, colors, and patterns, not automatically like a chameleon, but through its own will. A cuttlefish can choose to make itself invisible against a range of undersea backgrounds, instantly turning on camouflage. If instead it wants to create a pulsating light show all over its body to hypnotize its prey, it can choose to do that. If several males are competing for the attentions of a female, one male might suddenly change his appearance to that of a female cuttlefish, momentarily distract one of the males, then quickly change his shape back into his actual maleness, and swoop in for a mating opportunity.
NYTimes.com – Carl Zimmer visits Dr. Roger Hanlon in his lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA.
I know this sounds like science fiction, but it really is true. Cuttlefish can create color patterns all over their bodies, but they themselves are colorblind. When Lanier first saw all of this in videos made by squid scientist Roger Hanlon, he was overcome with… jealousy. For humans to do this kind of transformation we have to invent computers, software, avatars, that cost millions of dollars to develop and thousands of years to create. But these squid have simply evolved to do these amazing things!
So what do we really have that cuttlefish don’t? Childhood. Parenting. Family. Individual cephalopods might learn a lot in their lifetimes, but they pass none of it down to the next generation. Each generation begins anew, with nothing but their genes and individual experience to generate their own ways of knowing and communicating. Every new cuttlefish starts from ground zero.
So sure, we humans have cooler, faster machines than ever before. But more importantly, we have each other, and we had best use our tools to share experiences, rather than hide within them only for ourselves. Learn all you can from our machines, but then turn them off, bolt out the door, go outside. And take someone with you. It’s only real if it’s shared.