The Object
of Discourse

Pixel-induced alienation

Pixelated photo of seagull at Pier 14, San Francisco

One drawback of designing for digital media comes from the intangibility of pixels. A recurring theme I’ve been noticing for years in design blogs, conversations with other designers, and—yes—Pinterest boards is the frequent need to go beyond the screen, and make something that one can finally touch, something that lasts. It could be considered as a form of pixel-induced alienation, in that exposure to various kinds of screens makes us long for something that we can hold in our hands, that doesn’t glare in our faces, that doesn’t constantly solicit our attention. Also, something that doesn’t disappear in a blackout or doesn’t become obsolete in six months.

It’s not about reading books, or going for a hike, or taking a cooking class. It’s about taking the design-related part of our brains on an analog, maybe even lo-fi vacation. Some designers dabble with letterpress printing, some experiment with hand-carved wood type, and some with fashion design. The goal is to keep making things, but also to fill the void of tangible objects.

Although I support these departures from the digital, and enjoy hearing stories about them and seeing the results, the fact that digital media are seen as lacking physicality is due to a widespread discomfort with digital technologies, which affects even the most tech-oriented of us. This is, in turn, due to a cultural bias when it comes to human perception, a hierarchy of the senses, if you will: touching something feels more real than just seeing it. We can trust our skin more than we can trust our eyes, and consequently we give the sense of touch more credit and more intrinsic value.

Granted, it would be reductive to say that digital design is only about sight, when in fact, if properly executed, it allows the same object to be accessed through different senses, including hearing and touch. The beauty of digital technologies is that they transcend the limitations of physical matter. But when I make a website, I know for a fact that the one thing my typical client desires the most is to finally be able to see it—never mind that the main interaction with it is through a form of touch, mediated as it may be by an input device.

Touch trumps sight, matter trumps light. The day after Thanksgiving 2014 I went to the Harvard Art Museums to see the recently restored Rothko murals. Painted using a photosensitive pigment, through their fifty-year history the murals have gradually faded. Conservators deemed impractical to restore them using conventional techniques, chiefly because they wouldn’t have solved the aging of the paint, so they decided to act only on the perception of colors. This involved a combination of digital technologies to compensate for the missing vividness, using photos of the murals taken in 1964 as sources. What resulted may very well be the definition of pixel perfection.

No one can claim the murals are not real and tangible. Even so, they are but a shadow of their old self. They’ve aged and faded, and only thanks to the lights projected onto them can we now see them in their former colors. I was at the museum at four in the afternoon, when the projectors are switched off. For one hour every day, the murals are naked, old, and dark. Their colors have very little to do with those you could see just a few seconds before, or with those of the sketches hanging in the next room.

I was amazed at the effectiveness of restoration by light, but I could hear sighs of disappointment, and a couple of peremptory statements about the legitimacy of this means of preserving art—as if replacing or enhancing colors by changing the substance of which the murals are made would have maintained the originality of the works more than superimposing rays of light onto them. But visual art is about perception, so what if we trick our eyes and our brains into thinking we’re seeing something that’s not there?

The issue of the intangibility of digital design is a subjective matter, but I see it as a symptom of the persistent idea that digital equals fake, or just not quite real enough. Although I understand the need to get away from the keyboard, take our eyes off the screen, I don’t see it as a way to fill the void of tangible things, fulfill the need to produce real objects. The web and other digital interfaces are real, because real are the effects they produce on the analog world. This misconception of the web and the internet at large as pertaining to a different world is what makes boundaries between different planes of reality appear fuzzier. What you say and do on the internet doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t define you as a person, because you’re not really doing it, it’s not you who’s doing it, it’s not real after all.

Except it is real. What’s built with pixels isn’t a virtuality or a fallback reality, a simulacrum of something that is completely realized only in the analog world. Only embracing the web and other digital media as another kind of matter, not as an intermediary, will we finally win the battle against the idea that all we do as digital designers is draw pretty pictures. The truth is that we are building worlds. Better yet, we’re shaping new parts of the world we live in.

Intangibility and impermanence aren’t just a prerogative of digital media. Music faces a very similar conundrum: a violinist plays an instrument that gives him bad posture, probably damages his hearing, and results in an intangible and impermanent, albeit analog, product. Even a recording, which exists to defeat music’s ephemerality, is just as dependent on external factors, such as the availability of a music player, thus some source of electricity, and, more and more, an internet connection.

I’m not even sure I want the product of my work to be permanent. With the speed at which the progress of technology forces us to learn new tricks and techniques, do we really want that website we made ten years ago to be publicly available forever? For sentimental reasons, perhaps we do. But what should actually remain of our work is the craft itself, the knowledge required to take it one step forward every day. That, and the ability to think critically about it and its role in culture and society.

The intangibility and impermanence of digital media raise another, bigger concern. Digitizing the world means taking a signal, a physical phenomenon perceivable by humans, breaking it apart, and turning it into something else that, in its raw form, only a machine can understand. This process alone is enough to make many uncomfortable for ontological reasons: a digital song is not a song, a digital book is just a screen pretending to be a book, and a digital photograph is most definitely not a photograph—never mind that there’s nothing in the word “photograph” that demands it be an analog recording of light. I have no such ontological qualms. What concerns me is the permanence of the data we produce and the sustainability of a craft that depends on electricity and an internet connection.

Lose that machine, lose the knowledge of how the machine can process that digital code, and you lose the ability to turn it back into an analog signal, you lose the perception. That’s a scary thought. Digital archives are, at once, the best and the worst way to preserve our knowledge. They require preserving not only the data, but the tools used to encode and decode it. And they require planning for duplication, redundancy, accessibility, portability, and real privacy—in the sense of total control over the availability of one’s own data. I trust technology and science enough to know that we’ll solve this problem too. We’ll invent some meta-technologies that will be able to reverse-engineer anything—or maybe I’m just delusional, because I’m a digital designer and this is a thought that makes me sleep better at night. Whether I should trust humans to use these technologies appropriately, well, that’s a whole different story.

First published in March 2015.

This essay originally appeared on The Pastry Box Project on January 31, 2015. The pixel-alienated seagull in the photo is one I found on Pier 14 in San Francisco.