Yesterday Abraham Lincoln was crowded out of this space by the little voyage of exploration I took with Charles Darwin and the beagle. Remarkably, both Mr. Darwin and old Honest Abe were born on the same day – 200 years ago yesterday. The similarities are almost too obvious to bear repeating. Each was the major catalyst for a fundamental shift in societal perception – shifts that neither man lived to see completed.

But Lincoln has an entirely different meaning for me, thanks to Leon Harmon of Bell Laboratories, and a series of experiments he did in 1973. In November 1973 the following image was published by Harmon in Scientific American, one of the illustrations for an article entitled “The Recognition of Faces”:

My first encounter with this image had a profound effect on my perception of the world. Until I came upon this article, I had – like most people – assumed that the things I see with my eyes are simply a reflection of the universe around me. I already understood that we interpret reality with our eyes and brains. But I hadn’t yet understood the extent to which we create the reality we see.

Harmon’s highly reduced image of Lincoln – scanned and downsampled from a five dollar bill – blew away some polite fictions about “seeing”. Clearly the image you behold is nothing like Abraham Lincoln in any real-world sense. It is, in fact, just a jumble of little gray squares – 14×18 little gray squares to be precise. If you didn’t have the image right in front of you back in 1973 – if you had never seen anything like this – and somebody had told you a face could be recognized by a 14×18 pixel grid, you would probably have dismissed such an outlandish claim outright.

But partly because of Leon Harmon and his visual experiments, we now understand that much of what we perceive is actually a kind of fiction: We don’t see Abraham Lincoln because he looks like Abrahalm Lincoln. We see Abraham Lincoln because we know what Abraham Lincoln looks like. The distinction is subtle, but fundamental.

This need to come to terms with our own inescapable subjectivity, our human tendency to continually make up reality as we go along – even as we seek to better understand the Universe through our science – was one of the great themes of the 2oth century, perhaps the major way in which that century parted ways with the certainties of the 1800s.

As usual, the artists got it right first. Even before the century changed, Realism was followed by Impressionism, and then Expressionism. By 1900 the scientists were starting to catch up. Newton gave way to Einstein, the outcome of quantum experiments were seen to depend upon the observer (that would be us), Freud made everyone conscious of the Unconscious, and all of the Victorian age pieties were suddenly breaking down at once.

And this progression – this continuing evolution in cultural perception – is why Harmon’s image of Lincoln is so important. It was an early example of an equivalent shift from the 20th century to the 21st. We had all learned the lessons of Einstein and Freud – that reality itself is malleable, that our own point of view as observer is an irreduceable part of the equation.

What we did not yet understand was that bandwidth itself is fungeable.

In the 21st century, as the information economy has gone from one of scarcity to one of abundance, information itself is no longer what it was. Everything has turned into Harmon’s portrait of Lincoln. A single well timed or mis-timed statement can trump all of the fine political speeches in the world. The tiny screen of an iPhone is more attractive than the highest of high definition TV. The substandard sound of MP3 has taken over, pushing aside far higher quality audio formats for all but a few die-hards.

The huge onslaught of information has turned everyone into a full-time spam filter. Everything has come down to finding the direct wire between what is out there and what is already inside our heads. Mere facts don’t seem to be enough – there needs to be a sympathetic vibe between the 14×18 pixel version of a thing and the similarly low-res homunculus within our brains that waits to resonate in response to a matching signal.

McLuhan had it only partly right. It’s not exactly that the medium is the message, but rather that the bandwidth is what it can be reduced to. Leon Harmon showed us a curiously redacted image and dared us to admit the truth – that we already knew what the images are, because each of us carries them around inside our heads. Freedom is now the right to apply your own information filter.

All of this is a far cry from the dreams of our nation’s founding fathers. If Abe Lincoln were around today to see what his fine 19th century notions of individual rights and personal liberty have evolved into 150 years later, I suspect he would be astonished. And more than a little confused.

15 thoughts on “Harmonium”

  1. First, my caustic jab… Lincoln was notoriously noted for jailing his political opponants… So, I’m not sure how astonished he’d be, but, definately confused…

    Now for the other part…

    How much do you think the recognition of the grossly pixelated image has to do with the fact that it’s a representation of an iconic image? Do you think it would have been as recognisable if it wasn’t an iconic portrait of Lincoln, or, if it was of another person that you knew, but, had never appeared on a $5 bill? Would you recognize it if it were me or you?

    I liked your thinking here, but, question how close we need to be to the base idea in order to make a connection with the abstraction.

  2. Yes, good point. The nerve of that man. The way he acted, you’d think we were at war or something. It would have been so much easier for everyone if he’d just let the country split up. Darned Republican… 😉

    Yes, I agree that recognition is connected with it being an iconic image. You’ve articulated my point better than I did. We are progressing toward an information economy where we trade in icons. It’s not the bandwidth, but the cred attached to whatever cultural IP you can lay claim to. Informative web documents have little currency compared with web docs that return high hits on Google.

    Thanks for helping to clarify that!

  3. Criminalizing political opponants goes beyond war and peace… It’s a slippery slope when “by any means necessary” to quote Sartre (made more famous by Malcolm X of course) comes into play…

    Sometimes the Means is what makes us dirty, independant of the Ends.

  4. Troy, you might be the only person in the country who hasn’t noticed that the “Lincoln jailing opponents” thing is being used pervasively by right wing commentators (Google: lincoln “jailiing opponents”) as a way to dismiss Lincoln’s entire legacy – simply to knock our current president down a peg without needing to engage in rational argument.

    Yes, you might be the one person who hasn’t noticed this particular lazy attack. It’s possible, I’ll grant you that. But I’m not betting on it.

    Wouldn’t it be more interesting for you to avoid the low ground in the political discussion? Yes, Lincoln was an avowed racist. And George Washington owned slaves. And William Wilberforce was a religious fanatic who believed most of the world was going to burn in hell after they died.

    I mean, come off it. When you talk about people from a long-ago era in history, at least contextualize a little.

  5. Not sure if I made it clear, please forgive my verbosity, but, nowhere in this thread did I mention Obama, or, attempt to bring down the current administration, or, Lincoln’s legacy…

    My comments were entirely based on your question. I felt it was a poignant observation based on the question of personal liberties.

    I have not been following any threads on how this relates to Obama and plead ignorance to discussions of the same.

    I will google, as you suggest, and bring myself up to speed on the “lazy attack”. I’ll have to tune in to Rush Limbaugh to get the skinny… 🙂

  6. sorry to monopolize this comment thread… guess I should have done my research before responding the last two times… but… I did the google search that you suggested…. Very interesting…

    I found the Lincoln lifting of Habeous Corpus particularly interesting… Sounds kinda like Gitmo, doesn’t it?

    I’m not being critical of Lincoln here, but, giving justification for Gitmo. 🙂

    I know that Obama had to take a stand on that for political reasons, but, I’ll give it a 75% chance of outlasting him… Funny that the whole waterboarding thing took center stage on that… Guess people don’t realize that we actually do the same thing to ourselves. I’ll bet you that not one person that interrogated with this technique hasn’t had it done to themselves… They did it to me… I made it out whole… Scary, yes… torture, no…

  7. Yes, I understood that from your previous comment.

    The timing of those attacks on Lincoln are also tied, of course, to his 200th birthday. The threads are kind of funny. In one, a newly released book talking about some great Americans – including both Washington and Lincoln – is attacked by somebody else. The commenter is trying to defend real great Americans – like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, explaining how they were betrayed by Lincoln. And, of course, he brings up Lincoln’s use of jailing.

    But the larger point is interesting, outside of that side note. The ancient Athenians espoused democracy – but only for a small class of privileged men. When Lincoln took office things were somewhat similar. Of course by the time he was assassinated things had changed considerably in the U.S. Yet women still didn’t get the vote in this country for several more decades after that.

    It’s interesting to monitor how even a basic concept like “democracy” gets redefined as time passes. Two hundred years in the future, people might be of the opinon that America in 2009 was not a true democracy, but only a privileged club for the few masquerading as one. And their reasons might make little sense to us.

  8. In response to the lifting of Habeas Corpus: The point could be argued the other way. Lincoln was operating 150 years ago, at a time when democratic self-rule was still a young experiment (there were still a few people alive from the time of Colonial rule under George III!).

    We might want to hold ourselves to a higher standard. For one thing, Lincoln was operating long before the modern scientific era. Controlled psychological studies show that “confessions” obtained under physical and psychic duress are not reliable – certainly not something you’d want to bet peoples’ lives on in wartime.

    And then there is the argument that cultures and mores evolve. Slavery has been abolished. Women are no longer considered to be property. Lincoln was a man who pushed some ethical notions of society further along in his own time. But we are not in the mid 19th century – we are in the early 21st century.

  9. I think that Corialanus best illustrates the dangers of democracy… (I find it interesting to note that this is one of the only Shakespearian plays banned in France for its use by fascists) 🙂

    How can you leave the unwashed masses to rule? Isn’t a benevolant dictator a better option? (joking of course)

    True democracy, would lead to chaos… Imagine if everyone had a say in everything… We’d never get anything done… Representative Democracy… well, that kinda works… but, who’s being represented? What can we have a vote on and what not?

    History is an an interesting and fickle story teller given a changing cultural context…

    I was just thinking about the views of eliminating habeous corpus in the instances of Lincoln and of Bush… Seems it was ok then, and not now. Reminded me of the Daily Show last month when the question was asked: “why is cheese good on Italian food, but, disgusting on Chinese food”? I don’t know… it just is…

    I guess the bottom line is that you can build someone up, or tear someone down with a little perspective, or lack thereof…

    Kinda reminds me of Dan Quayle… He was obviously portrayed as unintelligent, happless, and bungeling… That was a media depiction based on what they chose to latch on to. But, I know him personally as a smart, witty, and fun guy. Point a camera at anyone long enough and they’re going to say something stupid, or, forget how many ‘e’s there are in potatoee… 😐

    (you can see how old we both look here: http://flickr.com/photos/tbd1/2166456430/ )

  10. @ Troy
    You are quite right with the observation you made with Mr. Quale, I made an observation like this so often, while I was doing politics myself. The very interesting question to me is, why most of us forget that even if somebody is a politician, he or she is still a human, who is afraid at times, who needs to be loved and makes mistakes like all of us.
    It is just as if we want to believe that the tough outside of the politician is all he or she is and can be.
    I always wondered why an American president has for example has to live a perfect family life, when I look at our chancellors – nearly all of them are divorced at least one time. 🙂 Are they less good in their jobs, because of that?
    I am with Peter Greenaway here, when he says:”Just because you have eyes, it doesn’t’t mean you can see.”
    I strongly believe that especially because of the amount of information that is available today, we need to keep the simple model in our minds that there is always a sender, a channel and a receiver. And not caring about the kind of information we get, we need to keep in mind that the transmission channel, is always the point where errors can occur.
    That the information is always interpreted by the receiver, based on his experiences and last but not least what the receiver wants to see.
    The very hard thing about it, is trying to get rid of your own experiences and to try to see things in a new way and come up with new ideas.

  11. Yes, I also agree with Troy on this. Anyone on the left who gives in to the temptation to reduce Dan Quayle to a media-created cartoon should also understand that this attitude gives license to those on the right who managed to convince an all-too-gullible nation that who Bill Clinton slept with was somehow relevant to his presidency.

    The nation was greatly weakened in 1998 by our chief executive losing so much ability to function, at a time when there were substantial behind-the-scenes national security concerns for the administration to take care of – as we saw three years later.

    I had always blamed Henry Hyde and other Republicans for that cynical campaign of personal destruction of a sitting president. But Troy’s comment makes me see that none of us are blameless. There is a straight line from the first Dan Quayle joke to the first Monica Lewinsky joke.

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