Pixels and Paintbrushes

This is a more half-baked entry than most, but I feel it’s as far as I can push it right now without additional reading or feedback. Please do comment to share thoughts, or send me emails.

One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory. – Neil Gaiman, American Gods

The balance between the formal and the informal is a constant. The formal being the structures, agreements, legible interactions of people trying to exact control and predictability out of their world. It is the tallying of food on a ship to ration for a voyage gone awry, it is the systematizing of forestry to produce a known quantity of wood, it is the manual of building types by address on the secret shelves of a fire truck. The informal is the learning to fish, the grazing of sheep on a multigrowth forest, the running in to do what you can when the books don’t have a reference for the fire you’re looking at.

For generations, we have optimized for outputs rather than for adaptability. We have chosen for formal over the informal, in the belief it was the only way for us to survive. We have made our systems predictable with the factors we were aware of, but we did not see enough. This has made us fragile.

We have optimized our objectives and approaches for the removal of cognitive and emotional barriers, allowing ourselves to produce at scale and have use impact via torque. Slower moving, but persistent and consistent. This allows us to produce and plan, a necessary approach for growing populations. The current (and hopefully continuing) trend of glorifying innovation is a response to this. It is about difference and barriers forcing examination and collaboration. That brings out creativity and the ability to adapt. This is quick, but not patient, and rarely replicable. It is the wibbly bits around the edges, the water that flows between the scaffolding.

I have started comparing these aspects to the level of detail we can get out of digitization approaching and surpassing what the human brain can process. The beauty of analog, and of those wibbly bits, is that this is where the smoothness of sound comes in, the ease of a brush stroke. The deep quality and enjoyable nature of an LP, as opposed to the lossy MP3 of the same song. But digitizing means we can replicate, send, readily share that song, and as our processing power increases, we are able to approximate real life more and more.

This has entirely to do with how much detail is available for you at each level of zoom, and what your ability to perceive those differences is. As I talked to Kav about this blog entry yesterday, slowly sunburning on a walk through New Orleans streets, he pointed out that one theory of chaos is it as order complex beyond the ability to process.

Pixels and paintbrushes. Our desire to plan and optimize has interrupted our ability to create and adapt. There is a tension here which could be used to better each component, rather than have them at odds. We now have the ability to see and use more complexity, but we are bringing the mindset of optimization through simplification to it. Big DataTM shouldn’t just be about what falls within allowable standard deviations, it’s about acknowledgement and examination of the tails; and more importantly, the complexity of interaction. We now have the ability to have a large quantity of qualitative data. And that is amazing.

If each of us is a set of pixels in an image, or we produce the pixels which make up a digital self, at some point you get high resolution by sharing more, but it’s still in the abstraction of viewing the whole picture that people get a sense of who you are. Strangely, because we are each sharing things with metadata, we are also able to get abstraction divorced from the individual, and rather across the topic (EverydayCarry being a great example of this). These pixels, if we each are keeping our heads down for fear of how we are treated in the future, lead to one bland picture when you step back from the individual into the zoom setting of society. Civic Media blog

That thing about the map becoming more and more accurate, and that making it too bulky to be useful in any way is now negated by filters. And filters which inform each layer about context. We now CAN have the map as the territory.

There are remainder thoughts here about how this self-documentation now means explicit selectiveness in the enforcement of law. And how the process of making the illegible (those woobly, informal bits) legible is what monocultures a system. But this is already wordy, and I am hungry. Maybe another time.