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.