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Pixels Are Driving Out Reality

Even amid steady streams of images of real-life disasters, the ones in movies are dulling our sense of what real-life is.

When the massive alien starship of Independence Day: Resurgence landed in theaters this summer holiday, audiences flocked to witness an unprecedented scale of destruction. Director Roland Emmerich's appetite for spectacular catastrophe is clearly bigger than ever—at one point, Asia is flipped on top of Europe—even though it retains a sense of nostalgia, a sense of that familiar extraterrestrial panache. As Jeff Goldblum's character whispers at one point, "They like to hit the landmarks."

Is the audience impressed and scared? Rather mildly, if one has to judge from the film's 32 percent audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. "You can forgive Independence Day: Resurgence for being ridiculous," wrote a reviewer at Time. "But you can't forgive it for being boring." Vox: "Independence Day: Resurgence is the summer's worst movie — and its most boring." At Kotaku ("Independence Day: Resurgence Is Worse Than Bad. It's Boring"), a reviewer noted: "I should have taken a nap instead."

It is not an isolated phenomenon. Many CGI-based Hollywood blockbusters lately seem to be full of sheer dullness—from Batman v Superman to X-Men: Apocalypse. Is it a matter of flat storytelling, inconsequential acting, and choppy editing, or is it the hallmark of a deeper mechanism that is draining all substance from our cinematic imaginary worlds?

Independence Day: Resurgence. GIF via io9

In 1979, when spectators saw Alien, they were deeply impressed because what they saw was strongly linked to actual life, if only because their imaginary life had not been colonized by CGI. The humongous spaceship Nostromo—a miniature model—provoked awe and respect. When the creature erupted from Kane's abdomen—a plaster model encased in fake blood and animal entrails—people were horrified. The shock was registered on the faces of the actors, who, per Ridley Scott's direction, weren't told ahead of time that the moment would include a giant splatter of blood. "That's why their looks of disgust and horror are so real," producer and co-writer David Giler told Cinefantastique.

At the time, when spectators saw red stuff, they saw blood.

This is no longer the case. Even the first Independence Day relied heavily on miniature models and practical effects, including for the iconic shot of the White House blowing up; in total, there there were just 430 computerized shots. In the new one, however, the number of digitized shots has quadrupled, to 1,750.

And yet today, when spectators see the world destroyed for the umpteenth time in Independence Day: Resurgence, they are at least as unimpressed as the actors on-screen. People have been looking at pixels for much too long. Our imaginary world has been diluted and diluted to the point that, so to speak, there is no longer even a stain of real blood, love, and pain. Nowadays, when spectators see blood, they see pixels.

I suspect that such lukewarm reactions are examples of what might be called "the inflation of meaning." The idea is that current massive use of CGI and VFX in movies is provoking a rising inflation in the actual significance of what we see on screens. Pixels are driving out blood, so to speak.

Warning: Contains spoilers.

Such an inflation of meaning results in something akin to Gresham's law in economics, namely the monetary principle that "bad money drives out good." Whenever there are two forms of commodity money in circulation, which are accepted by law as having similar face value, the more valuable commodity disappears from circulation. In a letter to Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of her accession in 1558, Gresham wrote "that good and bad coin cannot circulate together," as a way of explaining the "unexampled state of badness" England's coinage had been left in after the "Great Debasements" of Henry VIII and Edward VI, which reduced the metallic value of English silver coins to a small fraction of what it had been at the time of Henry VII. It was because of these debasements, Gresham observed to the Queen, that "all your fine gold was convayed out of this your realm."

The analogy is manifest when a CGI rendering of a collapsing building and an actual collapsing building are taken to have identical face value. The more "realistic" explosions we see in movies, the less we come to value the explosions we encounter in TV news reports. As with seemingly equivalent currencies, the pixels are driving out actual things.

Poignantly, there recently has been a resurgence of old techniques to retrieve some actual contact with the external world: Both Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams in The Hateful Eight and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, respectively, reverted to using 70 mm film and actual, real-life shooting as much as they could. In the movie industries, there is some feeling that the world can't be completely simulated.

Of course, there are many other factors that lead to dullness—poor acting, repetition, unconvincing storylines, weak emotional connections. But in the long run, even those factors may be the result of a larger mechanism at play: the inflation of meaning. The very proliferation of CGI fakes intended to make movies increasingly eye-catching is draining all images of their actual meaning, because they are all, after all, just pixels.

Once upon a time, in 1896, Auguste and Louis Lumière presented the short movie Train Pulling into a Station. The 50-second silent film showed the entry of a steam locomotive into a train station in the French coastal town of La Ciotat. The story goes that when the film was first shown, the spectators were frightened by the sight of a life-sized train coming toward them. While some historians have found such accounts as possibly exaggerated, the audience reaction was surely feasible. In fact, the Lumière brothers took advantage of the dramatic effect of the approaching train by placing the camera on the platform almost across the arriving train trajectory.

Such a movie was so convincing because everyone's fantasy had not yet been diluted by countless computer generated images. It was a bit like antibiotics the first time they were administered: effective. And then bacteria evolved, to the point antibiotics eventually became increasingly useless.

A few years ago, inside the VR world Second Life—which took the virtual world in a fortnight and lost it almost as fast in a few months—simulated sex was a popular pastime. Like wildfire, Second Life became populated by all conceivable kinds of sexual animations. The surprising offshoot was that simulated sex lost all its fleshy raunchy transgressive mojo. Of course, the animations were skillfully done; they exploited sexual geometries that would have made Marquis De Sade flinch. Yet, their emotive force faded almost as fast as the popularity of Second Life. Such animations were not human beings; they were not even pictures of human beings. They were only pixels moving on a screen. They had neither blood nor flesh.

After all, the history of art is filled with such examples. During the Renaissance, when Masaccio painted the Crucifixion inside the church of Santa Maria in Florence, his fellow citizens lined up to see a fresco that appeared to be as real as the real thing. If we look at the work today, we see only a rough depiction of human figures. Countless pictures and photos have bleached the actual significance of the fresco out of our eyes.

The reference to Masaccio is not inconsequential to the inflation of meaning. Between Masaccio's frescoes and Independence Day, a subterranean river has flowed vivaciously. Remarkably, it was during the Renaissance that Masaccio's fellows, Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti, invented that popular technique known as perspective that later inspired photography, cinema and, recently, VR and first-person-shooters like Quake, Doom, and Destiny! Perspective is key, because it convinced everyone that we do not see a flat projection but rather the real world. Such a flat projection eventually became a photo, a film frame, a screen on a computer or phone, and finally a VR headset—intended to convey nothing less than another version of reality.

The chest-bursting alien in Alien was a plaster puppet with fake blood and animal entrails. Image: 20th Century Fox

VR and augmented reality and the steady pace of CGI have pushed the process of substitution of reality to a higher level. At least, movies were once made using real stunts and real objects. Now, the actual world is no longer needed. The actual world, which is the good money, is no longer required. The virtual world, the bad money, is taking over. Yet, it lacks substance.

Still, many bought into the notion that, say, a photo of a collapsing building and a computer generated version of that are the same, because they have the same effect on our eyes. But is that true? Are we really going to react in the same way whether we see a picture taken by a photojournalist or a digital creation? Do pixels feel emotions? Does computer-generated blood pulse with life? Can we kill a silhouette made of pixels? Should we empathize with a CG victim of a CG violence? Hardly.

The abundance of faked CGI images dilutes the meaning of the images we see to the extent that our world is becoming little more than a sequence of abstract pixel sheets. The meaning of what we see in theaters is fading constantly. Computer graphics have neither flesh nor blood. They have only formal external structure: 00101001001 tells us a sequence, but it does not tell whether such digits are colors, sounds, characters, blood, love, birth and death. It tells us how pixels are organized according to certain rules that the world happens to have.

Yet, such a lifeless system is devoid of any real-life meaning. It has only what philosopher John Searle described as syntax—the way in which words, pixels and computer code go together; not what they are about. But inside a computer generated image there is no meaning. The world remains locked out of it, because it was never part of it. Audiences do not get substance. They get empty, albeit sometimes beautiful, form.

Meaning is not information. Perception is not projection. We live in a real world, not in a lifeless flow of information.

These considerations will surely trigger some mandatory connection with the work of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who stressed that our semantic world is composed of references with no referents. It is the generation by models of a "real" without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory.

Today, though, a much more concrete phenomenon is at work, namely the substitution of the flesh and blood reality with another reality made of pixels and computer rules. It's not a matter of a lack of reference or value, but rather a physical substitution of our everyday world with a façade made of pixels. Baudrillard claimed that signs work without any reference to actual meaning. CGI and virtual reality are bleaching the very notion of sign. Pixels have no longer any semantics because they are not signs in human lives, they are things in a world of things. Only they are not the things we live in. Pixels are not people, cars, and buildings. Pixels are only pixels, no matter how they are organized.

In fact, the confusion may have originated with the notion that our brains are like computers. That might lead someone to believe that feeding our minds with real-life images is in some ways no different than feeding our minds with bits. After all, this notion has inspired a number of science-fiction movies. Yet, like Robert Epstein recently observed, brains are not computers. Meaning is not information. Perception is not projection. We live in a real world, not in a lifeless flow of information.

How far can this process go before all reality gets substituted by lifeless and meaningless pixel sheets? A possible risk is an inversion of roles between simulation and real life. As when the film of a locomotive drained meaning from actual locomotives, the abundance of faked CGI simulations may end by draining meaning from actual lives. Will we see real locomotives, or whatever will they be, and will we take them to be meaningless pixel surfaces? Will we see blood and react as though it were a ray-traced red CGI image? Will we see pain and pleasure and behave like dumb spectators?

In Hal Hashby's Being There, Chance, played by Peter Sellers, is a simple-minded middle-aged man who has spent all his life indoors watching TV programs. When he gets out into the real world, due to unexpected circumstances, he mistakes reality for an uninterrupted television program. This is what an attachment to CGI images may be doing to us—turning fake things into reality, and turning meaningful life into a kind of television.


Riccardo Manzotti is a Professor in Psychology at the Institute of Human, Language and Environmental Sciences at the University of Milan, holds a PhD in robotics, is the author of 50 papers on the basis of consciousness, and is the webmaster of consciousness.it. His last essay for Motherboard, with Andrew Smart, examined Elon Musk's assertion that we are probably living in simulation.

Below, watch Roland Emmerich Talk VFX and CGI: