Landauer’s principle is a physical principle pertaining to the lower theoretical limit of energy consumption of computation. It holds that “any logically irreversible manipulation of information, such as the erasure of a bit or the merging of two computation paths, must be accompanied by a corresponding entropy increase in non-information-bearing degrees of freedom of the information-processing apparatus or its environment”. Another way of phrasing Landauer’s principle is that if an observer loses information about a physical system, the observer loses the ability to extract work from that system.
One of the wonders of modern surveillance and recording technology is the realization in courts that eyewitness testimony is vastly more untrustworthy than we previously thought. Photography was the first major step we took towards bringing this paradox of the unreliability in what we see, what we think we see, and even what actual “reality” is into the public’s consciousness. Photography changed the way we remember things because it has the ability to capture actual events, a slice of reality on paper that was able to start “accurately” describing an event. This slice of reality quickly began filling newspapers and magazines with objects from our environment we had no idea existed. Obviously we all know the phrase that a photograph is worth a thousand words, but what we’ve realized since the popularization of this phrase is that in many cases the thousand word limit is not nearly enough. This fundamental limitation of how we perceive our environment based on the efficiency of the technology we create is a pattern that has been marching on since the beginning of time. Whether that technology be the phonetic alphabet, hierarchical moveable type, or the digital screen, we as a species have always been limited by how we interact with our environments.
EARLY SOCIAL MEDIA
The contemporary technological advancement that has made the most notable shift in how we interact with our environment is our ability to connect globally through social media. One of the first metas of images to become popular on social media was optical illusions. Mostly simple use cases that would show semi innocent scenes with obscene alignments of perspective to cause it to look like someone had three arms, or appear to have odd proportions which immediately stand out to the human eye and cause the viewer to quit scrolling. Unlike a newspaper where such a silly image would seem like a waste of space, in the infinite real estate of the digital world the public was able to create however their hearts desired. The public as a whole was able to start taking urgency in the creation of their digital environment. These simple but powerful methods of deception have been utilized since shortly after the creation of photography itself, but the more recent democratization of the camera has increased the rate at which people capture and interact with photography. In contemporary times everyone is a defacto photographer and media publication via their social media feed. This move from viewer to creator has caused an increase in visual vocabulary of the public. This can be seen easily just by looking at the change in the quality of composition within posts on popular social media platforms from about 2010 to the current moment. During this time a vast larger amount of the public has become active in the role of not just resharing, but creating online content, and even memes. The introduction of meme generators has democratized to the public the basic power to represent an idea effectively through the multiple. This method of creation through a computer program gives the user a high floor to the medium in which they are communicating, but it wasn’t just memes people were creating. The public became forced to design hierarchical structures of information via publicly facing profiles, and interact with their environment in a similar fashion. The public was creating more than ever: with type, with image, and with brand. Over time we’ve, consciously and subconsciously, started thinking of ourselves not as individuals, but as personal brands. We’ve transformed from having conversations, to participating in brand development. This has had a dramatic effect on how we would communicate and create as a collective going forward. It expanded the public’s reach on the individual. By this I mean, a larger part of our life was consumed by the desire of the whole directly and indirectly.
For example: a user may not directly be on a social media platform at the time, but the user functions similarly to a nurse that is on-call to a hospital. In both cases the user is just a moment’s notice from needing to jump into action, which requires constant consideration by the user itself. This has a trade-off in which they are always on-call, but they are also always reaping the benefits of being in multiple places at once. This forced us as individual members of this new version of the public to further merge our perception of individual self with the personal brand version of self. Always working, so we produce better and more. Practice makes perfect, right? This increase in visual vocabulary is not an objectively negative thing within itself. As a public we communicate more effectively and efficiently. For instance, over time the public has drastically improved in its use of the Rule of Thirds1, and now implements intermediate color theory regularly. The images we create function more efficiently per bit of data. If a photograph is worth 1000 words how many is an emoji worth? I’d guess at least 500, which honestly isn’t too bad for a single tap of the thumb. Either way it is efficient and this whole process of improvement is mostly done all without the user even noticing, but this is obviously a byproduct of repetitive interaction with the technology itself. This has led to a dramatic increase in the average quality and quantity of creative work being produced around the world. We are expressing ourselves more than ever. This increase in market forces within the visual field quickly led to the democratization of the software and skills to be able to edit photos in a realistic way. As a public, we were no longer digitally bound to any standard of reality.
The manipulation of photos had been affecting the public for decades at this point, but the public now had access. For instance the iconic photo of Abraham Lincoln is one of the first manipulated photographs ever created. The photograph was a composite of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and the Southern politician, John Calhoun’s body. The compositing of an image through multiple sources was practice that had been utilized by the best portrait painters since before the renaissance, but this was different. At this point in time the public assumed certain traits to the medium of photography itself. Photography had now become closer to its phonetic roots, being itself a composite of two greek words including photo meaning “light”, and graph meaning “drawing”. It’s easy to see how what may seem innocent when it’s in the context of Abraham Lincoln deciding how he’d like his lower body proportioned, becomes a much more opaque problem when it’s Joseph Stalin deciding which enemies he’d like airbrushed out of photos. Our assumptions around the photo have created an advanced method of historical editing that makes it impossible to know the full psychological and political implementations of this misalignment of faith across a species. We feel like we always know what is going on, because we see it right there with our own eyes. This has only further became a realistic hyperbole through the invention of the internet. The amount of information and images themselves become overwhelming, and has created a short circuit anytime we move towards a grey area. It allows the water to be muddied much easier. For example any public figure may now claim that any undesirable photo has been manipulated, and as a public we are forced to respect that possibility to a certain degree because we know it is possible. The most obviously bizarre contemporary example of this is Prince Andrew’s BBC interview in 2019. When questioned by the interviewer about his appearance in a damning photo linking him to the now deceased scumbag Jeffrey Epstein’s web of international trafficking of under age sex slaves, Andrew’s response was “Nobody can prove whether or not that photograph has been doctored but I don’t recollect that photograph ever being taken”. This uncertainty is just as impactful for those who recognize its power, as it is for those who are unaware of its strategic use.
This creates a dizzying effect where we, as the public, perceive the world to be crazier than it is. Everything feels like a grey area, because it always was to a degree, we just learn to adapt our perspective overtime, and that perspective is forced to adapt to a further and further more rapidly shifting environment based on increasing amounts of assumptions. For example the use of filters to change an individual’s appearance. One of the best and most current studies of this phenomenon was done by Amy Niu who found herself wondering about the effects these virtual makeovers have on college-age females.2 While most American apps require the user to select the filter before it is applied, popular apps among Chinese college-age females apply the filter as soon as the user opens the app. This is a growing trend we see of apps beginning to play as soon as you open them instead of asking you to login, in the hopes of capturing attention faster. Additionally, many Chinese students have phones that apply the filter directly through the phone’s camera so they are seeing their enhanced self every time they take a selfie. In other words, they are seeing themselves with the filter more often than their unedited face. These capabilities will only be further and further increased as industries start to collapse inward towards the machine learning and digital spaces.
If photography had such a dramatic effect on what we perceive as the past, what will the effect of being able to show completely autonomous alternate realistic variations of reality be? The uncanny valley is a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object. As an object looks closer to reality, we gradually anthropomorphize the object. The breadth of this valley is rapidly shrinking thanks to the exponential nature of Moore’s Law3 creating more and more efficient hardware and the democratization of software capable of creating realistic imagery and video. Unfortunately not many studies have been conducted on the Uncanny Valley, or the effects further crossing it as a public will have. Here’s the only blatantly stated key takeaways from one of the most cited studies on this topic:
“Our results indicate that depicting virtual animal-like characters at realism levels used in current video games causes negative reactions just as the uncanny valley predicts for humanlike characters. We conclude design implication to avoid that sensation and suggest that virtual animals should either be given a completely natural or a stylized appearance.”4
If only we had a study to understand the long term effects of these aforementioned negative reactions. Fortunately and unfortunately for us, we’re all currently taking part in just such an experiment. The contemporary advancements in software and computing power has greatly democratized the ability to create borderline uncanny 3D renderings at any scale. At the lower end, anyone can now experience creating in 3D on their laptop or even mobile device. On the other end of the spectrum there’s K/DA. At GDC 2018, Epic Games teamed with 3Lateral, Cubic Motion, Tencent and Vicon to take live-captured digital humans to the next level. Attendees at the FMX conference in Stuttgart, Germany were able to meet “Siren,” the high-fidelity, real-time digital character based on the likeness of Chinese actress Bingjie Jiang. Fast forward just two years and we have a corporation manifested as a virtual K-Pop band, branded as K/DA, that fans can play within a video-game or interact with on social media. It probably goes without saying, but that escalated quickly. So, what exactly happened, and where are we going?
Riot Games, starting as a small indie company, has now become one of the leading forces in virtual content production. The corporation is most known for its development and publishing of the free multiplayer online battle arena video game League of Legends. League of legends consists of 152 characters from a series of different worlds and times throughout the universe that Riot Games has crafted. Each with extensive lore that is utilized through all the different manifestations of the brand. Between all the different mediums it exists, the brand deploys a world that feels similar to something out of a J. R. R. Tolkien or Frank Herbert novel. As we saw with the 1984 Dune film based on the two Frank Herbert novels of the same name, it is very difficult to bring these hyper complex realities into any sort of form. Similar to that of the process taken within a production of a film, Riot is approaching the forming of their K-Pop band, named K/DA, as a corporation. Riot Games has a subdivision within the company branded as Riot Music group, which consists of an unknown number of master musicians and producers. This group also utilizes other world class solo musical artists to perform features to assist in their marketing efforts. Every part of the production is similarly tasked out to specialized teams. The result is a single creative assemblage of world class musicians performing world class choreography rendered into reality by arguably some of the best digital artists to ever walk the earth. This creative endeavor is also presented to the public via the world class marketing division of the company, which has resulted in numerous social-media accounts to further the illusion of bringing the virtual into reality. Just recently Seraphine, who has made appearances within the League of legends video-game as well, could be seen on Twitter in a full 3D rendered film thanking fans for listening to the group’s new EP. The company is rumored to be releasing a new boy band next year as promotion for their yearly championship tournament. Which leaves only two questions. Did Andy Warhol birth the contemporary creative corporate climate? Could the corporation be considered a creative in itself, or is it a corral for the culling of creativity?
In many ways, K/DA represents the natural progression of where we saw music, and really creativity as a whole moving in the digital age. There is an increasing pressure to produce as much content out of as little of an idea as possible. From what started at the 24/7 news cycle affecting us has become us producing news 24/7. What started as wanting to interact with others content online, quickly moved to wanting to interact with others online. This has now moved to even wanting to interact with versions of other people that aren’t there. This virtual fragmentation of self isn’t new, but the degree at which we are improving at the task is. At first we wanted to see your profile and header, but with the introduction of tools like chatbots and the more recent V-Tuber trend we are further and further able to interact with virtual versions of people that aren’t present, or even real. What is a V-tuber you might ask? It is a “Virtual Youtuber”. A person that streams and/or uploads videos to YouTube using, mostly, an anime avatar following their movements in real time. These avatars may be in 2D or 3D models, but the point is this is just another step towards collectively facing the question of can we capture reality? Conceptually this avatar becomes a fully wearable version of a social media profile and, similar to the photograph, opens the degree of freedom for deception. It’s not hard to start to imagine the way chatbots and even further advancement in Natural Language Processing(NLP) will cause identifying these 2D or 3D models as “real” virtual representations of a person, or just a program that can speak increasingly difficult. We continue to virtually fracture ourselves off through technological compression of autonomy. We see a push for content to be playing even when no one directly made it, and we want more ways to interact with the content itself. As a human we strive to feel as much of the autonomy in every creative action as efficiently as possible. In other words, perceptually we’re lazy, but in a beautiful way. This whole process is just a gradual move towards the medium itself, and we are continuously forced to recalibrate our bearings. This was the same question asked by stimulating science-fiction, provocative philosophers, and engaging art of the past that each pulls us out of our simple idea of the medium. What does it mean to be present? What does it mean to be alive in this place right now? Or are we even here right now? Could this all just be a simulation?
I don’t know where I fall on the subject, but many intelligent people have been coming to this conclusion, and I feel it won’t stop at them. The scientific potential for there to be God or at least some higher system of operation is bound to attract a following to some degree. Many who have rested on this position cite its plausibility through concepts like quantum computing, and dependently typed functional programming languages to express mathematical assertions, which mechanically checks proofs of these assertions to help to find formal proofs, and extracts a certified program from the constructive proof of the aforementioned formal specification. Essentially functioning like M. C. Escher’s famous illustration of a pair of hands drawing themselves, entitled ‘Drawing Hands’. Patterns that translate patterns. No matter where one falls on the issue, as these technologies become further and further democratized they will also continue to reframe the same repeating problem of perspective reality. In the near future every inquisitive 14 year old will be able to create virtual realities a lot more fitting to their name. Alternate realities possessing their own logic, and “spontaneous” thoughts. Only bound by the creativity of the autonomous system the living idea is bound by. A metaphorical assemblage of the popular Sims video game, Google Earth, and a virtual reality headset. But actually. Even better. Who needs a headset if you can plug straight into your brain?
At this point, we could go into a long series of artistically worded tropes about the brain and consciousness, we could discuss the technological advancements that took place around Elon Musks’ Neurolink within the year of 2020, or we could dive into the technical minutia of how machine learning is causing greater accuracy of pattern recognition within real-time brainwave tracking, but instead we’ll just leave it here. All of the aforementioned warps in perspective throughout this essay will continue to move us closer towards the gap of what an object is versus what the object is perceived to be. It makes us come into contact with the fact that all objects are withdrawn. Similar to the juxtaposition that takes place with an acid trip, or reading Alice In Wonderland, in that, it transports us into a different paradigm where the boundary between materiality and perception of an object is blurred. What does it mean to be? This will be the continuing direction of the reality we find ourselves in. Unlike the deep psychological experiences of taking a hallucinogen or reading an excellent piece of fiction this is something that doesn’t quit affecting us. Without adequate knowledge about the system we’re within we lose the ability to extract work from that system as a species. We collectively have to avoid the trap of metaphorically being that guy that took too much acid and is ranting about vibrations, and how everything is waves, because It molds to us and we mold to it, etc. etc. etc. for days.
My point is just remember Landauer’s principle because this is just one of the many times we have, and will be forced to have to answer the fundamental question of what it means to be autonomous within a material environment. The best we can aim for is a symbiosis with the system we’re trapped within. We will be forced to further become the message within the medium in hopes of stopping the reverse.
1 ) The rule of thirds is a loose guideline which applies to the process of composing visual images such as designs, films, paintings, and photographs. It proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.
2 ) University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisc.edu: Niu analyzing how selfie filters affect self-image, 2019
3 ) Moore’s law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years
4 ) Schwind, Valentin & Leicht, K. & Jäger, Solveigh & Wolf, Katrin & Henze, Niels, Is there an Uncanny Valley of Virtual Animals?, 2017