Sympathy for the Sim

Picture me on the couch with both cat and pup vying for prime real estate on my lap, both presumably annoyed that this cold, glowing machine is getting all my attention. It’s 9pm on Thursday evening. I’m reading Vox’s live-Tweet coverage of the Republican debate melee while kind of watching it while downloading podcasts about polling data. I’ve gone full political junkie. Send help!

Don’t worry, this week’s post is not about politics…

CB, February 26, 2016


You need to see Danielle. Danielle is a short film about a woman who grows old.

At the beginning, Danielle is two, maybe three; just a toddler. She is chubby, wide-eyed, and curious. A minute and a half. She’s a young adult now. Earnest. Sixty seconds later, Danielle must be roughly my age. An adult. Not especially young; not especially old. But weariness has already begun gathering under her eyes. It’s subtle, but it’s there. At three minutes, though, Danielle’s aging becomes more pronounced. More lines around her eyes. A dropping jawline. The shadow of a million frowns drips from the corners of her lips. Her expression is proud. She’s going for stoic, but something’s there. Defiance, perhaps. Three minutes and twenty seconds. The next ten seconds are a requiem told in microexpressions. Resistance, fear, anger, despair, resignation. Yet, at 03:38, she blinks — ever so slightly slower than before — and suddenly, her face takes on a look of peace. In the last thirty seconds, that peace spreads and warms up to joy and compassion. And then, at her final moment, Danielle swallows, her eyebrows lift, her lips tremble, and, her silent, Grandmotherly benediction becomes “goodbye.”

After many, many views, that is my very subjective, emotional reading of Danielle. It’s a story admittedly made easier by hopping from one frame to another, by actually clicking within the timeline and skipping everything in between my stops. Each frame is like a portrait, a clear index of the passage of time. Watching Danielle in this way makes it possible to imagine a full life; to fill in the gaps with a bigger story. School. Friends. A job. Love. Hopes. Disappointments. Loss.

But, if I watch Danielle uninterrupted, a different illusion is at work. I can see Danielle’s face change. I can read into that her age, and maybe even imagine, as I did just now, how she feels about growing older. But identifying what it is about her face that signals age and when, exactly, that happens is much more difficult. There are hints, but they are elusive. When I get very close to the screen and watch her chin and her chin alone, I can see as gravity rounds and softens its edge. Just barely. But when I widen my view, I see that everything else has changed, too. But this time, the change happens in an instant. I missed the details, and this abruptly older Danielle is startling. It’s an illusion, of course, but how true to life it is.

We’ve all experienced the illusion aging faces create. Growing up and seeing our parents day in and day out, there were times that they seemed unchanging. Immortal. We’d look at their wedding pictures and giggle at these funny young things who looked kind of like Mom and Dad, but couldn’t possibly be the same people we knew. But then, on that first visit back from school, it’s as if years passed for them and months for you. What you don’t realize then is that they are thinking the same thing. What happened to my child? The one who used to be just this* big and look up and smile that baby-toothed grin and skip and play and laugh?* And as time goes on, and everyone grows up and spreads out into the world, and the time between visits gets longer, our faces become one another’s urgently ticking clock.

Age isn’t a specific feature, after all. Sure, people say you see it first in the eyes. Or that grey is an obvious giveaway. Or that time widens and rounds and softens, so look first to the edges. But it’s more than that. Try it on Danielle. Stare at one feature for an entire minute, just like I did. I suspect that, like me, it will be when you stop focusing on just that feature that you see time at work. Age is a measure of change.

In a piece for Colossal, Christopher Jobson recounts how director Anthony Cerniello created Danielle:

“Cerniello traveled to his friend Danielle’s family reunion and with still photographer Keith Sirchio shot portraits of her youngest cousins through to her oldest relatives with a Hasselblad medium format camera. Then began the process of scanning each photo with a drum scanner at the U.N. in New York, at which point he carefully edited the photos to select the family members that had the most similar bone structure. Next he brought on animators Nathan Meier and Edmund Earle who worked in After Effects and 3D Studio Max to morph and animate the still photos to make them lifelike as possible. Finally, Nuke (a kind of 3D visual effects software) artist George Cuddy was brought on to smooth out some small details like the eyes and hair.”

Cerniello’s Danielle is an animated composite of members of the real Danielle’s family. She is a simulation.

Knowing how Danielle was made — knowing that Danielle is not real, but a synthesis of imagery brought to life by machine — provides entry to another reading entirely, in which we extend Danielle a kind of humanity anyway. A personhood. Danielle is no longer a time lapse or a facsimile of life — a portrait on the level of Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 12.5 years, Portrait of Lotte, 41 Years in 60 Seconds, or Diego Goldberg’s The Arrow of Time, all of which manipulate real footage to accelerate the passage of time — it’s a life. Danielle’s life. And we watch the entirety of it — all 4 minutes and 19 seconds — happen before our very eyes. One real minute is twenty sim years.

Does Danielle know what she is? Would it matter?

The idea of an awoken fiction — a character, aware, not within the story, but of the story, and of its beginning and end and containment within a larger, outside world — is mind-bending and dreadful. And there are examples of that idea that I have never been able to shake. When Star Trek’s Moriarty — a holodeck character created to be a villain suitable for an android’s Sherlock Holmes cosplay hobby — pleads his case for existence, the Captain’s face cannot hide his pity for a man whose self-awareness traps him in a permanent existential crisis, nor his fear of what desperate acts a man driven to survive might commit. Similarly, in Stranger than Fiction, Harold, the protagonist and meta-protagonist, confronts the necessity of his death and pleads of the author who wrote him into existence, “Can’t we just try to see if she can change it? I could change. I could be someone else.” The literature professor who sees the book of Harold’s life for what it is replies bluntly, but not without compassion, “No one wants to die, Harold, but unfortunately, we do. You will die, someday, some time. Heart failure at the bank. Choke on a mint. Some long, drawn-out disease you contracted on vacation. You will die. You will absolutely die. Even if you avoid this death, another will find you. And I guarantee that it won’t be as poetic or meaningful as what she’s written. I’m sorry, but it’s the nature of all tragedies, Harold. The hero dies, but the story lives on forever.” What’s true of Harold, the fictional character somehow living in the real world is, of course, true of each one of us: we will die. How, when, and why, are out of our control. Suddenly, being real doesn’t seem to matter much. Humanity, in the qualitative sense, is an object of the mind. We are empathy, not biology.

Fiction, in all its diversity and vagaries, is often a more accurate and expedient tool for surveying the predicament in which we find ourselves. We, who exist. We look out upon an endless mystery from within a body vulnerable to everything. As dwarfed as we are by the unknown, what matters in that survey are feelings, not facts. As Moriarty so well demonstrates, cogito ergo sum only goes so far. In his case, it doesn’t even get him out the Holodeck’s door. That the lights go out when the program is closed is a problem for the Enterprise crew’s reality, not his. And that the show ends when the TV is turned off is a problem for our reality, not Star Trek’s. Because we’re the ones left to wonder where, in a possible multitude of nested realities, we exist. And like Fiction’s Harold, we’ll never know the true poetry of our lives from within them. We’ll have to die to find out.

Fiction is a mirror. And Danielle is a living fiction. She reflects our mortality. She is a memento mori; a digital desk skull. She exploits our imagination and evokes the irony that sometimes empathy is easier to feel for someone who isn’t real than for someone who is. And to feel for a fiction exposes our tenuous grasp of reality. If she isn’t real, what — or who — is? Are we? Who tells our story? Who listens? Who feels for us?

Written Elsewhere: Commoditization is a major concern for everyone working on the web today. But it’s a widely misunderstood issue. I wrote a long response last year to a well-known designer’s opinion that web design has become commoditized. My opinion: No, the field has just gotten much more complex, and businesses that used to just sell website design will struggle to continue without diversifying their revenue streams or specializing in some related service. Just last week, my firm published a ~5k-word white paper on the state of the industry — on how marketing has matured beyond the website — and the portion of it that I authored focuses in again on the subject of commoditization. My view is that the website is a commodity; design is not. I hope you’ll take some time to read it for a deeper explanation.

Heavy Rotation: Really diggin’ Nada Surf’s latest record, You Know Who You Are, which is up on NPR’s First Listen.

Recent Tabs: When Steve Wozniak booted up the first personal computer. Apple “remains in many ways a prisoner of its supply chain.” Another choice quote: “My husband discovered me there, passed out, in a scene that … well, imagine what would happen if you let Todd Solondz direct an episode of Game of Thrones.” From a great piece on the romance of marriage. Daily Life Gods. The Ultimate Laser Adventure. Astronaut Scott Kelly’s Valentine’s Day bouquet of zero-gravity zinnias, which he grew on the International Space Station. The World’s oldest dress. Via my buddy Adam, the opening sequence of British TV series UFO is a pretty fun throwback. A wonderful essay on Web Typography. How to Think About Bots. Daily affirmation.

Written by Christopher Butler on February 26, 2016,   In Essays

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