Google, Goggles, Glasses: Metalife in Mirrors
“I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand ….”
Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures
We are undergoing a profound revolution in how we live in the world because we are experiencing revolutionary changes in how we see the world. Google Goggles and Glasses (Project Glass) are two remarkable products that are part of a long history of informing the mind’s eye. The tools we use to see the world are never passive: they quickly become mirrors to see ourselves and expand our metalives.
Google Goggles, a downloadable image recognition app created by Google, searches pictures taken by handheld devices. You can search faces, landmarks, or with a barcode you can search product information.
Google Glasses, known as Project Glass, is a Google research and development program aimed at developing an augmented reality head-mounted display (HMD). As Google describes it:
“The first Project Glass demo resembles a pair of normal eyeglasses where the lens is replaced by a heads-up display. In the future, new designs may allow integration of the display into people’s normal eyewear.”
While ostensibly we see through them, we also see ourselves in them—and so these products constitute new Metalife mirrors. Curiously, as we quickly put new technologies and apps to utilitarian uses like augmenting reality, sharing photos, or unlocking a smart phone with our face (recognition app), the speed and ease-of-use of these technologies make us prone to miss how much we change as we engage with these tool-mirrors. Unless we put this paradigm shift into sufficient context, we will not fully understand it.
Moreover, cultural history can temporarily blind us to these wider realizations. Our long adaptation to alphabets and books leads us to gloss over how much of our brain is vision-focused: neurons devoted to visual processing number in the hundreds of millions and take up about 30 percent of the brain’s cortex, as compared with 8 percent for touch and 3 percent for hearing. Dr. John Medina’s Brain Rules #10 states: “vision trumps all other senses.” Medina says vision is such a big deal to us … “perhaps because it’s how we’ve always apprehended major threats, food supplies and reproductive opportunity.”
New visual technologies that began with the invention of photography, cinema and television, and now bring us Instagram and Facebook’s newly acquired Klik are effecting a rapid cultural reorientation. Like the autistic writer and thinker, Temple Grandin, we’re all beginning to think in pictures now. But unlike Grandin, this comes not from a so-called disability, but from emerging technologies.
Google Goggles and Project Glass, together with face recognition technologies like Klik and a myriad of new image sharing technologies and platforms, surely signal the rise and especially the personalization of surveillance culture. These tools also create a perfect storm for a revolution in seeing as profound as the discovery of perspective. But without a continuum of understanding what it was like to see the world before we had a sense of perspective, and what newer visual technologies did to (McLuhan’s) Gutenberg Galaxy, today we have little or no frame of reference; our seemingly insatiable drive to mirror the world is actually an old narrative. We are now advancing it.
To fully appreciate how Google, Googles, Glasses are radically altering our world, it is worthwhile to step back half a millennium.
VERMEER’S MIRROR WORLD
The mirror—above all, the mirror is our teacher.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
By the mid-fourteenth century, the Black Death, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, had devastated Europe. Peaking around 1350, it is estimated to have wiped out 30% to 60% of Europe’s population. By 1400 the world’s population had dropped by almost 100 million people. In the wake of this plague that affected all aspects of religious, social and economic life, Europe entered a period of remarkable visual awakening that included artists Hieronymous Bosch, Sandro Botticelli, Albrecht Durer and the inventor, engineer and artist, Leonardo Da Vinci.
Central to that awakening was a former sculptor turned architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, who early in the fifteenth century conducted an experiment with a mirror. He painted a picture of an octagonal building, the Bapistery of San Giovanni, still furnished with anti-plague doors. Onlookers would view the picture in an unusual fashion, as described by James Burke:
He set up a mirror about six feet inside the main door of the Florence Cathedral, facing outwards so that he could see the Bapistery, across the square, in the mirror. Then then painted this reverse image on to a flat wooden tablet. Then he drilled a hole in the centre of the painting. Viewers were invited to look through the hole in the back of the painting while holdling the mirror at arm’s length in front of the painting, so as to see it reflected in the mirror. As they were standing facing the Bapistery at the time, when the mirror was removed, they continued to see the Bapitstery. Such was the accuracy with which Brunelleschi had done the painting that there was no discernible difference between the mirror-painting and the real thing.
As the inventor of one-point or linear perspective that changed Italian architecture, Brunelleschi was part of a revolution in seeing. Painting became more realistic in style and subject matter. “No discernible difference between the mirror-painting and the real thing” was, at the time, a transforming discovery. It enabled an idea that still holds sway over us today: creating a mirror image of reality. But what was the genesis of that powerful idea? How did it evolve to capture and entangle our imaginations? Especially how would mirroring create and then dramatically change our Metalife?
By 1000 B.C.E., humans were making mirrors all over the world. But the idea of using a reflected image to create a more accurate likeness of a given subject was not immediately obvious. Technology, as it regularly does, aided the imagination. By the sixteenth century, Venice, a city famous for its glass-making, had become a center of mirror production. Glass mirrors used a technique of coating glass with a tin-mercury amalgam. Such mirrors were expensive luxuries, but by the seventeenth century the secret of the coating process reached other parts of Europe. One visionary who applied the logic of Brunelleschi’s architectural experiment to painting with stunning effect was Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, born in 1632. At the age of only twenty-nine he became headman of the painters’ guild in Delft, the Guild of Saint Luke. His paintings commanded high prices and he was considered the city’s leading painter. Poems were written about him characterizing Vermeer as a phoenix who rose out of the flames of an explosion that killed the city’s previous leading artisan, Carel Fabritius.
Vermeer had no way of knowing that he and his contemporaries would set the stage for modern day commercial simulation, computer games and Googlenalia. Using a primitive lens and mirror, he was among the first to secretly go to elaborate lengths to create exact captures of his world. This counter logic—no one had ever done it before—created a new narrative that we are still exploring today. Namely, the more exact the capture, the more the mirror neurons in our brains see that world as a place to explore and inform the so-called real world. These mirror worlds create an alternative or virtual reality, a Metalife.
What impressed his contemporaries is what makes Vermeer’s story so compelling to a modern audience: he achieved a more accurate or what we would now call a photographic representation of reality. Vermeer was a contemporary of the pioneer of microscopy, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a fellow citizen of Delft. It is unclear whether Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer were friends, but Vermeer was aware of the growing use of lenses to investigate nature. Artists’ methods for centuries have been secretive and hidden from view in their studios. But David Hockney, a brilliant artist in various media and a highly original thinker, and Philip Steadman, a professor at University College London, argue that Vermeer captured real life in a way previously unthinkable. It appears that Vermeer, like others before him, used a primitive camera-like device known as a camera obscura comprised of a lens, screen and mirror. The viewer sees an image that is right-side up but is reversed left-to-right.
Vermeer seems to have been delighted by the optical effects of the lens and tried to re-create them on the canvas. Foreground objects and figures are sometimes very large; some things are painted in soft focus, or out of focus altogether. In a well-known Vermeer painting of a milkmaid, for example, the basket in the foreground is out of focus compared with the basket hanging up behind, a distortion Vermeer would not have seen with the naked eye.
Vermeer stands as a direct link to our modern obsesson with reality capture and tinkering. While few of his contemporaries knew Vermeer employed the camera obscura, he was not the only one using it. Fifty years earlier Caravaggio’s lute player showed evidence of Hockney’s secret knowledge in the extreme foreshortening and musical notes precisely following the flow of a page; as did Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, painted in 1533, which was filled with highly intricate tapestries and precisely rendered curved and spherical objects; and Albrecht Durer depicted artists using technical aids in a 1525 woodcut. All of these artists appear to have been captivated by a mirroring precision in their art.
Despite Vermeer’s celebrated fame in Delft and The Netherlands, he was forgotten after his time. Only about three dozen paintings are attributed to him today and after his death, “his name largely disappeared from view in the 18th and early 19th centuries.”
The optical lens was a natural companion to the mirror. Over time, they were married in various instruments, and technology advanced their sophistication. It is not surprising, then—but it is highly instructive—that with the invention and spread of photography, a spontaneous reassessment of Vermeer took place in the latter half of the 19th century.
The aspiration of optical imitation in Western art is exceptional. Its apparent “normality” owes to the universal adoption of photography, film, television, and newer video sharing applications.
Vermeer was rediscovered with the advent of photography; he is rediscovered again when his methods were revealed at the turn of the 21st century with the near-simultaneous publication of Secret Knowledge and Vermeer’s Camera. Vermeer’s faithful mirroring and capture of reality became increasingly relevant in view of where his approach would lead us. Vermeer’s grandchildren are photorealism, pop art, virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, and the growing sophistication of simulation used in design, architecture, engineering, physics, medicine, oceanography, and space exploration.
COUNTER LOGIC: LIVING IN THE MIRROR
Vermeer and his secret knowledge contemporaries told a story in a counter logic that challenged the painterly practice of “eyeballing” reality: no difference between the painting and the real thing. The new narrative Vermeer and others started was capturing reality; the thing captured, the artifact, stands for—or stands equal to—what we consider real. This counter logic was partially understood when photography arrived in 1839; we are still expanding that understanding today.
“Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs,” Ansel Adams said. Today we see the implications of that belief. Seeing the world in a mirror, we don’t just look, we assume the logic of “no difference.” This rearranges how we see: we adjust what we see in the mirror—especially ourselves. Vermeer’s counter logic turns us from viewers to participants. Once the image becomes a mirror so exact that we can see ourselves in the mirror, we bend—we recreate and alter—our lives. We build and embellish our metalives accordingly.
Vermeer was among the first to create what David Gelernter called a mirror world. In 1991 David Gelernter predicted we would arrive at this point:
Mirror worlds will … make you see vividly…. Mirror Worlds promise to be powerful, fascinating, and gigantic in their implications. They are scientific viewing tools—microscopes, telescopes—focused not on the hugely large or small, but on the human-scale social world of organizations, institutions and machines: promising that same vast microscopic, telescopic increase in depth, sharpness and clarity of vision.
A deeper Metalife mystery is why, having captured a world—having created a mirror world—our perceptions are then captured by it. This is the larger question posed by Google Goggles and The Glass Project. The ultimate counter logic of mirror worlds is that they create a virtual environment so compelling that we want to inhabit it; some of us even prefer it to so-called reality. Today with the rise of highly sophisticated simulation as a way of describing, enlightening, even rivaling reality, we can see a host of discontents looming ahead to challenge our inherited view of the world. In 2007, science fiction writer William Gibson said:
One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real. In the future, that will become literally impossible. The distinction between cyberspace and that which isn’t cyberspace is going to be unimaginable.
The counter logic that started this narrative was born when a brilliant young painter looked through a simple device made of lens, screen and mirror to achieve precision in his art.
The long history of seeing reality through new lenses puts Google Goggles and Glasses into a useful context, especially since we are all living in the Metalife mirror now.
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