FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Pixels

I’m not talking about one of this summer’s movie flops… although if pressed I’ll admit I actually liked Pixels for what it was. I’m talking about the little dots of light that make up the words you’re reading right now. Pixels, in case you’re unaware, is a word meaning “picture elements,” and each pixel is a single bit of color made of red, green and blue light in varying proportions which, when combined by the millions, give you a photo-realistic image.

For decades, it was thought that not only could you really not get more than about 96 pixels to the inch, you wouldn’t need to. That changed oh, not long ago, when the first hi-DPI panels were put into smartphones. We called them “retina” displays, but what we really meant was something of at least 200 pixels to the inch. That’s so small that the pixels themselves are largely impossible to tell apart without a magnifying glass. It’s closer to the level of detail that we actually use to perceive the world, which depending on a lot of factors ranges from about 180 to 360 pixels to the inch. You see, there’s a native resolution to your eyes as well; the color receptors in them come in finite rows and columns just like a TV’s display. So while you can brag about the quality of a 450ppi (pixels per inch) display, its value is largely lost on the average human.

Hi-DPI panels make the world more realistic whether we’re talking about smartphone displays or 4K monitors, and they tend to help us forget that we’re not looking at reality. We’re just looking at one computer’s perception of it. Increasingly though, that’s all we care about. Just like previous generations remember their past in black-and-white, sepia-tone, or in the blue-starved, blurry images from faded Kodacolor prints (or their simulation in Instagram filters) it’s a fair bet that tomorrow’s adults will remember their childhoods in the saturated, bright jewel tones achievable from hi-DPI display panels.

Which really makes you think about how display technology does more than represent reality, it becomes reality. Of course none of us grew up in black-and-white; none of us had childhoods that reflected the muddiness of Polaroid pictures either. But somehow the past as we see it becomes intertwined with the photos we use to view it, and if your childhood pictures are brown or pale green from age, or if your high-school yearbook shows black-and-white images of you and your lifelong buddies, your memories form around that and it gets every harder to realize that the world of forty, fifty, or more years ago looked just as it does today, putting aside styles in clothing and furniture. It’s just the way we looked at it that’s changed.