A Philosophy of Pixels


As in most American households, alcohol flows at my family gatherings. Not because we have any trouble tolerating each other, but because we all have trouble tolerating the world in its current state. Multiple generations mean multiple perspectives on politics and religion, and although there’s a rule against talking about these things at the dinner table, there is no bar on discussion of the individual pixels that make up a television screen. At one such gathering, I sought to engage my family in some sense of awe, to remind them that, despite the images produced by the screen, there is much more to be inspired by in the contributions of their individual pixels. And while these paths of thinking are made much wider with the indulgence of alcohol, my slurred ramblings resulted in what I deem a surprisingly fruitful thesis: The blink we call human existence, ripe with complexity and unseen benefactors, is just a mass of scintillating pixels striving to make something worthwhile.

On its own, a frozen image on a television screen is the product of thousands of tiny, tri-colored lights all programed to flash a particular color at a particular moment, each independent and deliberate in its function. One frame, or microsecond, later, those lights have changed to produce a new image, whether one slightly different from the last or completely new in composition. These are images which, hundreds of years ago, would have taken an artist days or even weeks to produce, the final rendering drawing long glances and intricate deductions of aesthetic. Why has the artist composed the painting in this way? What intrinsic motivations brought the artist to paint this particular person? This particular scene? When we watch a television, we are being fed endless streams of these framed works, each broken down by the mind in a fraction of a second to follow some story blasted to us like an oncoming train. Our brains have remarkable processing power, but this doesn’t leave us much room to truly appreciate what it is we are seeing, which is essentially a wall of flashing pixels.

Awe comes from the appreciation of the fact that a single brushstroke, the culmination of hundreds of bristles, or a single pixel contributes to a whole which animals like us understand and are moved by. But where the scene rendered in paint or pixels may showcase the aesthetics at play, it is a human shortcoming that we ignore or, at best, forget the minute functions at work. If it is said that only the artist can truly appreciate the perfection of the brush’s position and the clarity of four thousand pixels, must it also be said that one cannot truly appreciate the intricacies of the human body and mind simply because many of us lack knowledge of the mechanisms which craft us into individuals?

Humans seems to neglect the fact that they are animals, that they are only a slightly more intelligent and adaptable creature than most others on Earth. For some reason, likely our impermanence, we purposely distract ourselves from the clear ties between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. We market fantasies of great creators, illustrating a skewed figure programming the pixels of reality, as if there were some instinctual ignorance we employ as a species to eschew our existential dread. But, in reality, we are each a canvas, our cells coming together like brushstrokes to form singular beings, masterworks. We have no need of an artist or engineer. We are born whole, with all the components necessary to inspire awe.

A mother may have greater appreciation for the masterwork which is her child, but she does not control the brush, only the canvas. And should we focus primarily on grooming the canvas, we are bound to miss out on leaving a substantial mark which contributes to the whole of human existence. Biologically, we exist to progress our species, to move humanity forward, to bring generations into the fray who, we hope, will make the human condition more satisfying and worth experiencing.

It may be that, in my drunken ramblings that night, there was no awe inspired by the pixels themselves, but rather their contributions to the whole of the image. The work of a painter is not the pull of each brushstroke across the canvas, but rather the ability of each shade to elicit greater understanding of the scene. Likewise, the miracle of humankind is not the cells from which we are formed, but rather the form itself which we inhabit. And we are not awe-inspiring beings, but rather the unhindered benefactors of this blink called human existence. For better or worse, we are one entity, one species, one masterwork, a single image, whose complexity dwarfs that of modern technology. And that, in me, inspires awe.




Ryan Negrini

Ryan Negrini is a Colorado author, who strives to bring attention to the details of human nature that too often get passed over. He is currently an M.F.A. student at Colorado State University, and his work has appeared in literary journals such as Havik and The Transnational.