The DEW Lab

Idiosyncratic Pixels


What the World’s Smallest Camera Can Tell Us About Reality

Earlier this week I’d tasked myself with making practical pitches about my rather abstract work. At one point I tried to describe how each object in the world has its own distorted perspective on the world and the analogy I’d used was a crowd of people, each with his/her own unique viewpoint. With the example I was hoping to illustrate that although we often conceive of the world as being an external thing, real and fully present to itself, this is in fact not the case. There is no vantage point that would encompass all the perspectives of those present. Like a visual version of Gödel’s Theorem, there is no complete perspective, for every new vantage leaves itself out of the picture. I ended out cutting this example, because it led into an area I’m just now grappling with: synthetic reason. But before we dive into that rather dense material, let’s take a detour through some popular science. I’ve started listening to CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks. On a recent episode Dr. Patrick Gill was a guest, brought on to discuss his miniature camera, called a planar Fourier capture array (PFCA). This microscopic camera fits on the head of a pin, thanks in part to the fact that it has no lens. Instead, each pixel on the PFCA captures a unique the scene in a unique way. Then the camera creates a composite from this unique perspectives to produce an image of about 20 pixels wide. Or to hear Gill describe it:

“In order to make an image you need to have a lot of independent pieces of information about what intensity of light is coming from each direction in the world. And how that’s done with a conventional camera is with lens. Light from one direction is mapped to one point on the sensor. If we don’t have a lens, how can we still take an image? Well you can’t simply map light from one direction to each pixel, because if you’re not focusing, almost all of the pixels would get no light at all. Instead of that, what I’ve created as a part of a team…is a chip where each sensor takes a unique mixture of angles, from different parts of the world. Each sensor has an idiosyncratic combination of defraction gradings on top of it, which make the information that it has unique.”

What interested me was how Dr. Gill analogized the camera:

“Each pixel is taking a single measurement that is unique, that is idiosyncratic, and by synthesizing the information from all of them we can arrive a direct picture. I’ve thought of an analogy that might help illustrate how this is possible. It’s sort of like you had a crowd of people, each able to see just one kind of feature in the scene, if they were to describe that feature to the artist, the artist might yet be able to reconstruct the entire scene just based on the features of each of the individual people” [My emphasis]

But what does ‘re-construct’ mean in this case? It seems like the underlying belief here is that if you synthesize parts you attain a more realized (i.e. more accurate) whole (“a direct picture”). This sounds to me like the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Just to be clear, my issue isn’t with Patrick Gill. The camera sounds ingenious and really is a superb technical accomplishment. But what this scenario illustrates is the logic that enables media to be seen as confirmation of human reality, in short, of an ontological anthropocentrism. In a recent post I suggested that we humans suffer from a sort of geocentric delusion but on the level of beings and our media work to maintain that fallacy because we believe that they are accurate only when they reconstruct their own idiosyncratic perspectives into a form recognizable by humans.


Composite image from idiosyncratic pixels of the PFCA

If this logic goes unchecked, it actually provides the basis for hyper-real media, as in media that surpass the human definition of reality. This, in turn, provides the basis for commercial exploitation and even the possibility of transcendence through media. But hyper-real is a relative term, one still defined in respect to the human, and it seems to be a floating point defined by other media within a specific culture. If you subscribe to OOO then you’ve likely already accepted that objects, media among them, are always already both hyper- and hypo-real; they are both above and below the human scale of realism. What the PFCA demonstrates, technically and in its analogized form, is that a synthesis of perspectives is taken to mean an increase in accuracy. This implies a hierarchy in terms of what is real, with the human as the most capable synthesizer, to be surpassed by the machine. OOO would maintain that, in respect to each object, all other objects are hyper and hypo-real, and that in terms of existence, there is no hierarchy but a democracy; each object exists equally but no object is fully present, to others or itself.

Thus, realism through synthesis, for me, seems to be a very productive fallacy. In the image above, the picture only appears more ‘direct’ if someone recognizes the famous portrait. In many respects, the light striking the idiosyncratic pixels is direct and the synthesis across multiple sensors is an attempt to humanize their interaction. Don’t get me wrong, that image is a very real thing. And art in general (the greatest product of synthetic thinking) is equally real. My issue is the erroneous belief that there are degrees of access and that objects themselves are limited in that respect because they lack the capacity to intelligently synthesize. The larger issue here is that we’ve created a media environment that validates and perpetuates anthropocentrism. In respect to media, this is really where speculative realism’s obsession with the weird and the alien proves its worth. A radio station out of tune or a camera out of focus is not broken, defective, or false. It’s as real as any other mediation. In more Heideggerian terms, the broken tool isn’t an indication of the human/world divide but instead it is a standing invitation to ask: for whom is the tool broken? The answer reveals that the tool was never fully present, never fully functional, but rather it was, for one serendipitous moment, in sync with our bodies and our minds. Synthesis makes that happen but it does so by denying the validity of the alien perspective. We cannot see both the faces and the vase simultaneously.

Vase or Faces? Courtesy of

Vase or Faces? Courtesy of

Through media we have constructed an environment that maintains the supremacy of the able-bodied, well-adjusted, average human being. This has left us bereft of the skills to think the other. More bluntly put, our media have contributed to an impoverished sense of empathy, both for humans that are not ‘able-bodied’ and for non-humans. This impoverishment leads to the audacious belief that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  No. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is outcast, he is a peasant beggar in a world not built, maintained, and perpetuated according to his phenomenological bias. In this respect, synthesis is a privilege, not a (human) right. We should always keep that in mind.