Sunday, February 5, 2012

Visualizing the Data Matrix

Many people are unaware of the fact that the 1999 science fiction film, The Matrix, was based in large part on the 1984 science fiction novel, Neuromancer, by William Gibson.  The plot of the film was sufficiently divergent from the book that the Wachowski brothers apparently felt no compunction to acknowledge their debt to Gibson, and they certainly were not required to do so.

In Gibson's near future scenario, we have the technology to create direct interfaces between the brain and the computer, simply by plugging in through the skull, or jacking in as Gibson put it.  And this connects the user to the matrix, a term that Gibson introduced in this new cyberpunk context, and which essentially refers to what became known as the internet.  Through this interface, individuals experienced a sense of place, and a sense of navigation through the online network, and of course there are hackers who try to break through security programs in this virtual world.

One of the major differences between the two visions of the matrix is that Gibson did not describe a virtual reality along the lines of The Matrix, but rather a cyberspace, to use the term he coined.  Gibson's concept of cyberspace was inspired by the sight of young people playing video games in arcades.  It looked, to Gibson, as if they had formed a direct cybernetic/feedback loop with the machine.  

And the look of his cyberspace was based on the use of low resolution, 8-bit graphics, relying on more abstract geometric shapes rather than the close to photorealistic graphics of current gaming.  In this, the movie Tron, released two years before Gibson's novel, in 1982, is closer to Gibson's vision than The Matrix.  I'm not suggesting a direct influence from Tron to Neuromancer, I hasten to add, as Gibson's vision was present in short stories published before Tron came out.  Rather, I see this as a matter of parallel development, reflecting the technology of the early 80s.

Tron's imagery is much more directly derived from video games than Neuromancer, and this clip illustrates that vision perfectly:

The film itself, I hasten to add, was not very good, apart from the visuals. And the sequel that came out in 2010 was not much better.  But that's besides the point.  

By the way, ReBoot, a cartoon series that was broadcast on Saturday mornings from 1994 to 2001, appears to have been based in part on Tron, and in part on Star Wars.  The series, created by a Canadian production company, was innovative for its time in its use of 3D computer graphics, and combines aspects of virtual reality with some of the more abstract elements of Gibson's cyberspace.  Here's the intro for the program:

But hey, let's go back to the source, shall we.  Gibson works a bit of exposition into the novel as the characters travel through a museum, hearing in passing the following narration for an exhibit explaining the history of cyberspace:

            “The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.”  On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes.  “Cyberspace.  A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…  A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.  Unthinkable complexity.  Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.  Like city lights, receding.…” (p.51)

 The key here is the graphic representation of data.   This is an idea that we have moved away from, in favor of the more familiar, and in many ways easier to work with, use of concrete imagery.  And that makes sense for popular entertainment, where extensive use of graphs and diagrams would not get a very positive reception.

But can the graphic representation of data help us to think about important issues regarding our own real world interfacing with the internet?  In a post on the website Brain Pickings, written by Maria Popova, and entitled, Network: The Secret Life of Your Personal Data, Animated, she poses the question about our own matrix:

what happens to the actual data that it digests? 28,000 MMS messages — multimedia pieces of communication like photos, videos, and voice communication — are sent into the world every second, and cell phone companies record much of the metadata that travels with them, like location, identity of the receiver, amount of data transferred, and the cost of the transmission?

She goes on to introduce a new video that, in my opinion, harkens back to Gibson's original vision of cyberspace:

The average user has 736 pieces of this personal data collected every day, and different service providers retain this information for anywhere between 12 and 60 months. Network is a remarkably designed piece of motion graphics by graphic design student Michael Rigley exploring the secret life of our MMS data and the tradeoffs we inadvertently face as we choose convenience of communication over privacy and control of personal data.

So here, take a look at the video now:

Network from Michael Rigley on Vimeo.

Rigley adds the following caption to his video: "Information technology has become a ubiquitous presence. By visualizing the processes that underlie our interactions with this technology we can trace what happens to the information we feed into the network."

The point is well taken, kudos to Michael for getting the message out, but what remains unclear is whether the visuals are helpful in illustrating the point, or at least attracting attention to the point being made, or a distraction, another example of what Neil Postman referred to as, amusing ourselves to death?

As much as this video might be open to Postmanesque critique, Neil would certainly concede that this abstract depiction of data is superior to the use of concrete imagery in virtual reality, and I also think it is worth noting the connection between this recently posted video, and the older vision of the matrix that William Gibson introduced three decades ago.  Cyberspace is more than a buzzword whose time has come and gone, it represents an important concept that we have yet to fully explore, and understand, and apply.  It's time, I think, for a return to cyberspace.  All aboard?


Robert K. Blechman said...

Which came first, cyberspace or Star Trek's holodeck? While Star Trek's creators mostly got the computer/human interface wrong (I'm reminded of scenes where Data visually scans computer screens scrolling at high speeds rather than interfacing wirelessly to bit coded data streams) the human/holodeck interaction best represented the potential of cyberspace without the need to physically jack in.

Lance Strate said...

Cyberspace came first, Neuromancer was published in 1984, and the term was actually introduced by Gibson in a short story published a few years earlier. Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987.

Of course, holograms have been in existence for a long time now, and the concept of holographic projection is nothing new, either as a form of enhanced moving image entertainment (e.g., George Lucas's THX-1138 from 1971), or as an enhanced communications device (e.g., Lucas's Star Wars from 1977). Star Trek: The Next Generation was unique in combining the idea of holograms as environments with holographic artificial intelligences as something akin to robots, and with the idea of interactive narrative and theater.

For a combination of holographic technology and cyberspace, I recommend the 1993 television miniseries, Wild Palms, produced by Oliver Stone. It think it's amazingly prescient, brilliant social commentary, and William Gibson makes a cameo appearance to boot!

John said...

While Gibson's coining and imagining of cyberspace is clearly a precursor to The Matrix, what far too many Neuromancer to Matrix discussions miss is Neil Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash. While the world of Tron is closer to Gibson's cyberspace, the world of the Matrix draws far more on Stephenson's Metaverse, even down to details like programmed backdoors serving as secret passage short cuts through the virtual world. Also, Stephenson is generally credited with popluarizing the term avatar in reference to our graphical manifestations in the digital realm.

Masamune Shirow's 1989 manga Ghost in the Shell, remade as a 1995 anime movie (as well as its various sequels, prequels, and spinoffs) carry on the tradition much closer to that of Gibson's cyberspace but also includes virtual reality closer to that of the Matrix.

The distinction between these two models, and I think this gets born out in your discussion of visualization of data in the context of Maria Popova's book is that the cyberspace model is an environment for navigating information and the Metaverse/Martix model—virtual reality, if you will—is an environment for inhabiting. Of course, the two purposes overlap. We see from time to time in Ghost in the Shell, in Tank's reading of the Matrix's code on the screen while the others plug in, and in the use of computers and other telecommunication devices in both Snow Crash and The Matrix

Adam said...

In the final video, Network, the narrator and the narration have eerie similarities with Ethan Hawke's in Gattaca.

Lance Strate said...

John, you are certainly right that Snow Crash had a big impact, and shifted the model from abstract cyberspace to a more concrete virtual environment. It's the difference between entering the environment of the computer network vs. using the computer network to create a simulation of a real world environment, the same difference between getting to the source code vs. creating a user interface like the GUI/Mac/Windows one. You might say that the Gibson model is more literate, more abstract, requires higher forms of cognition, while the Stephenson model is more oral, more concrete, and less demanding.

Adam, interesting connection, I hadn't noticed it.