rhizomes.06 spring 2003

Etymology of Code: Distance, Juxtaposition, and Fictive Space
Thomas P. Mackey

Objects moving are not impressed.
-- Samuel F. B. Morse, 1839.

[1] Web-based digital media influences our interpretation of online information and the extent to which truth and fiction blur in such contexts. This raises questions about the reliability of Web resources and the critical thinking skills required to evaluate and produce information in this environment. It also leads to an exploration of prior precedents in visual and virtual information to better understand the design, implementation and use of collaborative technology online. In Picture Theory, W.J.T. Mitchell states "there is little doubt that we are now undergoing a revolution in the technologies of representation that makes possible the fabrication of realities on an unprecedented scale" (423). Mitchell surveys our previous experience with representational art forms through a study of painting, photography and film. This approach is similarly applied to digital technologies that inspire writing, code, and design in the public sphere of the Web.

[2] Mitchell's "fabrication of realities" is evident in work produced via desktop publishing and digital imaging applications (423). The cut and paste of word processing programs and the point and click of Web browsers, HTML editors, and graphics programs juxtapose visual and textual information to create meaning. In some ways, these interconnected digital fragments are similar to the papiers-collès of the early collage artists (Kerne, 348). Adobe Photoshop, for example, allows developers to easily produce layers of graphics and text in the same way Picasso pasted found objects on canvas to reconfigure and re-imagine pictorial space. Digital imaging is unique from the collage techniques, however because of the flawless imitation of the alterations and the immediacy of transmission on the Web. As Andruid Kerne illustrates with his CollageMachine Web site "collage is one of the most important artistic concepts of the Information Age" (348). For Kerne, this process involves more than the positioning of collage elements and also includes the "recombination" of disparate forms to make meaning in a semiotic relationship (348). Kerne's CollageMachine site fuctions as a dynamic search engine that allows the user to produce an original digital collage based visual fragments from each query.

[3] Multimedia programs offer some of the same design features as Photoshop, but these applications extend the production capabilities across a temporal field or timeline. These programs integrate word, image, sound, video, and/or animation to create active representations in a potentially collaborative fictive space. Access to these resources for original media production is still problematic and emerging technologies continue to push the storage limits of PCs and servers as well as the bandwidth limits of the Internet. Digital tools for media manipulation, however, are increasingly available to a wider audience and open source offers even greater potential for open access.

[4] On the Web we often encounter information by chance or through purposeful searches. As Tim Berners-Lee imagined, we connect to a variety of media formats via hypertext links which create virtual associations. Berners-Lee argued that:

the fundamental principle behind the Web was that once someone somewhere made available a document, database, graphic, sound, video, or screen at some stage in an interactive dialogue, it should be accessible (subject to authorization of course) by anyone, with any type of computer, in any country (p. 37).

This level of access allows for the dynamic juxtaposition of word, image, and sound on a large scale, produced especially for this online environment. From the start, the Web was envisioned as a collaborative interface for information access and retrieval, as well as a tool for the production of information. Berners-Lee made this distinction clear when he argued that "without a hypertext editor, people would not have the tools to really use the Web as an intimate collaborative medium" (57). So while accessing online documents was important, producing information via hypertext editors was also an essential part of the original design.

[5] The Web also has a virtual dimension that may include Multi User Domains (MUDs), online computer games, or chat rooms, but the exploration of virtual experience is not unique to this medium. Literary fiction has always dealt with issues of truth and reality; that which is present and not present; real or imagined. The term cyberspace itself was introduced through fiction. In William Gibson's Neuromancer the author describes cyberspace as:

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 (51).

In this passage, Gibson predicts not only the rapid expanse of the Internet and the Web, he also describes this interactive collaborative medium as a world of information and code. The cyberspace in Gibson's fiction is a graphical one. He describes a visually complex environment that is also conceptual – bridging the gap between imagination and code – while locating the user in an uncertain terrain. Further, this setting is mediated by the interface itself as well as other users that share the same experience.

Prior Precedents in Visual and Virtual Experience

[6] David Michalski describes the Internet as a product of the "bibliographic imagination" that is rooted in Nineteenth century definitions of actual information environments, including "the physical spaces of libraries as well as World Expositions, amusement parks, museums, archives, department stores, shopping malls, arcades, and streets" (127). Michalski defines the information environment itself as "a cognitive space" that also includes "the interior and virtual displays of databases, books, charts and maps" (127). Through his historical analysis of information sites, the author proposes a matrix for evaluating these Nineteenth century structures that influence our current understanding of information and the Internet. Michalski avoids the analysis of any specific Nineteenth century technology and instead examines public spaces as a form of information organization or system. As we will see, however, the visual and virtual characteristics of the Web are also pre-dated by such Nineteenth century technologies as the diorama, daguerreotype, and telegraph. These innovations as well as the camera obscura mediated images and text via speed and time, and similarly inform our view of the Internet.

[7] In particular, the work of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre exemplifies the tension between actual and virtual space. Daguerre's use of the camera obscura and diorama, as well as his invention of the daguerreotype illustrates how technology mediates our experience with nature and how we make meaning through the association of representational forms.

Camera Obscura and Diorama

[8] In The History of Photography, Beumont Newhall notes that Giovanni Battista della Porta mentioned the camera obscura in Natural Magic as early as 1553 (9). This device enabled artists to project light through a pinhole (or lens) in a dark room. The image that was projected in this space allowed artists to have a better sense of how to draw or trace an object from nature through a copy of it via this mediation. The projection of light through this device mirrored an image from the real world. This approach was particularly useful as artists worked with perspective to give the illusion of three dimensional space in their painting. According to Newhall "the camera obscura, at first actually a room big enough for an artist to enter was useless until it became portable" (9). As these devices evolved they became smaller and "by the eighteenth century camera obscuras became sufficiently improved so that they were standard equipment for artists" (Newhall, 9). Rather than rely entirely on the artist's eye or imagination, this device mediated human observation and nature through a mechanical process.

[9] Daguerre experimented with the camera obscura in the early Nineteenth century in his work as a scenic artist to develop complex dioramas that literally immersed the viewer in virtual worlds. He worked in a theater called the Diorama that was "built for the display of huge 46 x 72-foot paintings of the most illusory kind" (Newhall, 15). Newhall describes Daguerre's multi-layered sets in the following way:

Semitransparent theatrical gauze was painted on both sides; on changing the lighting from front to back by adjusting curtains on the skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows behind the stage, one image could be made to dissolve into the other. To produce these paintings Daguerre and Bouton made frequent use of the camera obscura to assure correct perspective, and it was his familiarity with this instrument that led Daguerre toward photographic experimentation (15, 17).

Daguerre's dioramas created a level of immersion into visual space that predicted not only virtual reality, but also film projection in theaters, and multimedia performance art. By combining media elements that were available to him at the time, such as painting, perspective, scenery, and the camera obscura, Daguerre created a new form that was at once theatrical, illusory, and visual. By engaging viewers in a virtual experience of his own creation, Daguerre blurred the line between the real and imagined. The extent to which this immersion worked depended on the degree to which he could effectively create a believable illusion. Participants observed a pictorial space that moved and changed before them, altering their perspectives. In addition, their experience with the diorama was a shared one with other members of the audience. As Newhall points out, Daguerre's experiments with the camera obscura for his dioramas also led to the development of a technique for the innovative convergence of light, copper, and silver iodide, or what we commonly know as the photographic process.

Daguerrotype and Telegraph

[10] For centuries artists had been using the camera obscura to redirect the power of light. Daguerre combined this same technique with knowledge of how certain chemicals interact with light sensitive surfaces to develop "a new graphic medium that was to revolutionize picture making" (Newhall, 18). In 1837, ten years after Nicephore Niepce's View from his Window at Le Gras, 1827, one of the first photographic images using bitumen plates [1], Daguerre created the first daguerreotype, Still Life, 1837. Daguerre's process was based on "the light sensitivity of silver iodide" and produced results that were more visually effective than Niepce's process, although the two inventors were in conversation about the development of this technology (Newhall, 18). Newhall describes this first daguerreotype as "fully detailed, showing a wide range of tones between highlight and shadow, convincing realism in texture, contour, and volume" (18). Newhall writes:

He polished the silver side of the plate mirror bright and chemically clean. He sensitized it by putting it silver side down over a box containing particles of iodine, the fumes of which reacted with the silver to form light-sensitive silver iodide on the surface of the plate. He then exposed it to a camera. The light forming the optical image reduced the silver iodide to silver in proportion to its intensity. Daguerre next placed the exposed plate, which bore no visible image, over a box containing heated mercury; its fumes formed an amalgam with the freshly reduced silver and an image became visible (18).

Daguerre's photographic technique transformed silver iodide on a copper surface to reveal a unique visual perspective. Through this chemical reaction, actual space was captured as a copy of reality to be viewed and transmitted beyond the moment of first-hand experience. The daguerreotype fixed an image onto a permanent surface that was portable beyond the point of origin. Artists since the Renaissance had tried to capture reality in their painting with knowledge of perspective. As Newhall and others have pointed out, this innovation allowed for the reproduction of actual space without the mediation of the artist's paint and canvas (19). As revolutionary as this development was, it also reveals one of the central problems that may be inherent in "technologies of representation" (Mitchell, 423). That is, to what extent does this picture of an actual place and event fully document the truth?

[11] In his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Walter Benjamin identified some of the unique qualities of the photographic process that alter our perception of the original artwork. Benjamin focused on the "reproducibility" of art, and raised questions about the "authenticity" of the original artwork when reproduced through photographic processes (220). According to Benjamin photography mediates our experience with the original, thus altering our perception of the thing represented. Benjamin writes: "photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision" (220). Digital technologies continue to have an impact on our perception of reality through visual effects such as cut and paste, multiple layering, and alterations in image size, color, and opacity. Benjamin's insights about the illusory qualities of photography are especially relevant in a digital context because graphics and multimedia software are readily available and relatively easy to explore and apply. These programs also allow users to create seamless alterations that are published and shared online.

Two Views of the Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Taken the Same Day, 1838
Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre [2]

[12] The photograph is often seen as a mirror of reality, but the inherent tension in this medium between truth and fiction can be traced back to the first chemical reaction of silver iodide on copper and is evident in an early Daguerreotype entitled Two Views of the Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Taken the Same Day, 1838. The title of this work describes the scene depicted in the two photographs fairly well. We see two images that reveal this Paris Boulevard during the day. The perspective of the camera appears to be taken from a window view overlooking this quiet scene. Each image is essentially the same, although the camera perspective of the second image appears to have shifted slightly to the right. In addition, the first image reveals what appears to be one human figure in the foreground at the curve of the sidewalk. The second image does not show any human figures at all, which considering the fact that this image was taken during the day in Paris seems especially unusual. The absence of any figures in the first image, except for the one in the foreground, is also unusual.

[13] From a technical standpoint this absence reveals the inherently long exposure time required of Daguerre's camera to capture images. While our culture is accustomed to instantaneous pictures from cameras with fast shutter speeds, "the first daguerreotypes were mainly of architecture, since the exposure times of Daguerre's technique were of such length that people could not be recorded" (Newhall, 27). This image of a Paris Boulevard in 1838 is thus absent of human figures because they were moving too fast to be captured in the daguerreotype. The figure that appears in the first image is only present because he was in the process of "having his boots brushed" and had to stay in place to have this done (Newhall, 16). We also see another partial figure -- the person cleaning the shoes of the first figure -- and here the center of the body is captured while the periphery of the hands and arms in motion are not.

[14] This exploration of absence and presence through technical mediation is better understood through the insights of another Nineteenth century inventor. In 1839, Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, met with Daguerre in Paris. According to Newhall, Morse was demonstrating his telegraph as news about Daguerre's invention was made public (16). As such, both inventors invited the other for a demonstration of their work. Morse was clearly impressed by what he saw in this Daguerreotype and made astute observations about Daguerre's images in a letter to his brother [3]:

Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled of course, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion (Newhall, 16).

Morse effectively defines the relationship between speed, movement, and our experience with the image mediated by this technology. He notes that while this Paris Boulevard is always a busy thoroughfare, we do not see anyone or anything in movement in the Daguerreotype. This nascent virtual reality is mediated by the device used to capture the image -- the camera -- which alters our sense of what took place in the actual space of this scene and transferred a mirror image of it in permanence to silver plate. It is interesting to note that at least in this excerpt, Morse does not question the implications of this absence, he is clearly aware of it, but accepts this as part of the process and notes the overall quality of the Daguerreotype to represent this scene. Morse's observations about speed and movement are particularly compelling, given the impact of his own invention, the telegraph to reconfigure our understanding of speed, movement, and time to convey information.

[15] Morse's invention of the telegraph changed the way we think about the transmission of information across distances. As Brown and Duguid argue "with the telegraph, the speed of information essentially separated itself from the speed of human travel" (17). With Morse code, the delivery of information that once took days, "began to travel at close to the speed of light" (Brown and Duguid, 17). For the first time, data transmission mediated by speed, code, and a new sense of order and time replaced the actual delivery of information by hand. The gap between distance and information closed and information itself gained a certain amount of autonomy as something separate from the person who handled or delivered it (Brown and Duguid, 17). Morse's invention also enabled the transmission of information via a code that abstracted language to a binary of component parts (requiring an expertise to learn, translate, and "decode"). This technical and conceptual leap made it possible to think of information itself as a virtual reality, or to use Gibson's term a "cyberspace" that in a collaborative social network is "a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system" (51).

[16] Morse introduced a new way to experience information through a binary technology of code, data, and speed. Daguerre represented actual space through a pictorial technology of chemical transformation. While Morse reconfigured the way we look at data transmission through an acceleration of time, Daguerre slowed things down. "Objects moving are not impressed" (Newhall, 16). All things in motion are absent from this picture, as if they never existed in the first place. The visual representation of the Paris Boulevard is also an abstraction of what actually took place -- a fragment of information -- transmitted over time by the limits of a technology to accurately record time. As interesting and detailed as this Daguerreotype is (as noted by Morse in his description of this image), it is an incomplete picture of actual events; a virtual, fragmented record of an actual scene.

[17] Daguerre developed a way to view nature that illustrates a disconnect in the way technologies produce and transmit information. Daguerreotypes like the one of this Paris Boulevard revealed a new pictorial perspective on the world while concealing a full representation of reality. This paradox is not limited to photographic images from the past and cannot be easily resolved through improved methods of reproduction. Many of the technological problems of transmission currently experienced on the Web also involve disparities in speed from one computer to another, and in access from one user to another. Our experience with images, sound, and multimedia online, for instance, is fully mediated by the processing speed of computers and connection type (fiber optic cable line, dial-up service, or Ethernet). Temporality is a consideration of the Web interface that influences our access to information. In addition, digital technologies that enable the seamless alteration of images, from actual to virtual representations, have a profound impact on our experience with information. According to Taylor and Saarinen "with the inexorable expansion of the mediascape, all reality is mediatized and this becomes virtual" (virtuality, 6). These influences are especially relevant today, as word, image, and sound converge in transmission across a vast collaborative network.

Literacy of Information

[18] As we have seen in the work of Daguerre and Morse, the blurring of truth and fiction is not unique to the realm of cyberspace but has played out much earlier. By tracing the origins of this tension to prior precedents in Morse code, photography, the diorama, and camera obscura we may avoid uncritical assumptions about digital media and better understand its impact on the creation and distribution of online information. This etymology of code demonstrates the creative potential for emerging digital forms, while revealing the limits of technology to provide a complete or accurate picture of things in all contexts. It also challenges us to pursue a literacy of information that encompasses the visual and virtual characteristics of Web-based technologies.



[1] Bitumen Judea is a form of asphalt that is light sensitive (Newhall, 14).

[2] Newhall, 16.

[3] As Beumont Newhall notes in The History of Photography this letter was also published in the New York Observer on April 19, 1839 for which Morse's brother worked as an editor (16).



Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations: Walter Benjamin Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books.

Berners-Lee, Tim and Mark Fischetti. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Brown, John Seely, and Paul Duguid. The Social Life of Information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000.

Daguerre, Louis Jacques Mande. Two Views of the Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Taken the Same Day. 1838. Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich. In The History of Photography by Beumont Newhall. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993. 16.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Kerne, Andruid. "Collage Machine: An Interactive Agent of Web Recombination." Leonardo. Vol. 33. No. 5, pp. 347-350, 2000. Online.

__________. Interface Ecology. Web Site. 2001. «http://ecologylab.cs.tamu.edu/index.html»

Michalski, David. "The Bibliographic Imagination: Tracing the Nineteenth Century Origins of the Internet". Journal of American and Comparative Cultures. 24.3/4 (2001): 127-135.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993.

Taylor, Mark C. and Esa Saarinen. Imagologies: Media Philosophy. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.