Monday, September 13, 2010

Signal from Noise

"Necklace", digital pinhole image from Lumix G1 at ISO2000 using pinhole body cap

The sound of the wind, whistling through trees and around obstacles, to some of us comes to resemble the voices of people, distant and mysterious, a strange accompaniment of unwanted companionship.

There is in this interstitial region between random chaos and ordered regularity a synthesis of both noise and information, like subatomic particles popping in and out of existence within the strong gravitational field of a black hole; order from disorder, information from noise, something out of nothing. Magic.

Sometimes I can perceive of it, barely on the edge of consciousness, late at night, with the fan quietly running across the small distance of my room, with one ear covered by a pillow and the other barely picking out the fan's quiet whisper from the background of neural chaos, the signals and noise mixing and processing into something that comes to resemble a proto-voice, not distinct enough to clearly discern spoken words from, but possessing the resonance and timbre of a human-like intonation.

It is like the experience of reclining on a sunny day and gazing up at the clouds, making out shapes and forms from one's imagination. We seem to have this uncanny ability, us humans, to anthropomorphize inanimate forms into the shapes and textures of the human persona. We see faces in trees, animals in clouds, hear voices in the distant wind. We turn noise into signal, something out of nothing. Alchemy.

There are those among us who are more adept at the discerning of voices and the seeing of faces than the rest of us. We call them prophets, seers, visionaries, artists or madmen. They raise our consciousness, adding to the genetic pool of cultural awareness in a manner that the rationalist logician can never do.

Life is ordered, in contrast to some random mix of proteins and molecules. Somehow, we find that the highly ordered structures of living systems, being innately different from mere random collections of the same types of molecules and elements from which they are made, possess the rigor of an information system. We wonder, marvel even, at the miracle that is biological life, the complexity of multiple interconnected systems that pass energy, matter and information back and forth. Could it be that such order could have arisen from disorder, that noise could have crossed over that magical boundary that seperates the ordered from the disorderly and have become information, the stuff of life?

As a child, I used to gaze up at the ceiling in my bedroom, which was covered with a heavy texture of plaster, and make out shapes of all kinds. Many of these shapes became familiar enough to me that I could repeatedly make them out again and again, locate them with ease, like hidden works of art that only I was privileged enough to see. These were the fruit of an active imagination that, coupled with a field of semi-random patterns, became a fertile ground for the art of concocting harmony from disharmony.

I have long appreciated disorder and noise in photographic imagery. I am as much attracted to the emulsive granularity of a fast black and white film as I am to the tack-sharp vibrancy of a highly ordered color image. I like it when shapes and forms are barely distinguishable from the background noise, or focus is purposefully softened and indistinct, lacking the sharpness of line of the sophisticated optic. It is for this reason that I have enjoyed the pursuit of pinhole photography, and also the genre of the gritty, grainy street photo. Order from chaos, structure from formlessness, something out of nothing. It reminds me that we live constantly on the cusp, on the interstitial between the orderliness of our expectations and the unpredictable reality of life on a wild and havoc-filled world. The ideal future that we wish to create for ourselves is in reality as indistinct as are the fleeting glimpses of substance we discern from the everyday chaos that surround us.

More recently, we have substituted the mathematically ordered array of pixels for the random distribution of silver halides, suspended within a clear film support, as the primary technology of image-making. Yet the sea-change to digital photography has not eliminated the element of randomness and noise from photographic imagery. Such noise is still in evidence; although its appearance may be slightly altered, the underlying haze of quantum electron noise is as real as are the apparitions within those images that we recognize as the forms and faces of our friends and family. Noise, disinformation, continues to accompany us (as much social and political as physical); it seems as inevitable as the rising or setting of the sun that our ordered tesselations of pixelated images would continue to produce a haze of random noise, yet there it remains, like a distant echo from long ago when the world was but young.

Like sand being squeezed through the fingers of an ever-tightening grip, we are frought with dismay over the calamaties that seem to fall all around us, when word is brought of drought and disease and famine and holocaust, of social upheaval and war, exploitation and brutality. These come as dark surprises in the night of our youth, the unexpected something we thought somehow had been made obsolete, only now to remind us of our ever-present vulnerability within this world, encompassed on all sides and in all dimensions through and through with the curse of random chaos, like some darkness released long ago from Pandora's box. We come to realize that the very fabric of our existence is a precious pattern of harmony, woven in a thread of noise and random chaos, that lies in back of everything, and which on ocassion makes itself visible.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)


Blogger James Watterson said...

I totally did that with the plaster ceilings! I had a top bunk too so I was real close and knew just where to look.

7:19 PM  
Blogger CStanford said...

I loved this!

Recently I've been reading _This Is Your Brain on Music_ by Daniel Levitin, and it deals with this somewhat, but not as tastily as this post.

1:04 PM  

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