Text-mode Can Show Everything That Pixels Can, So…


Handmade carpet by Faig Ahmed, 2011

To say that all digital graphics consists of pixels, is a bad case of essentialism that makes us stuck in a loop. Here’s the full story!

On a perfect screen, pixels are the most basic element of digital graphics. Everything that is shown on that screen can be described perfectly by pixels. Obviously. But that is just the level of apperance. If we look beyond that, there is other kind of information and quite possibly more information, like here.

The pixel is a metafor much like the atom is (see this). It’s useful for many purposes, but it’s a model that doesn’t reveal the whole story. The same pixel looks different depending on context. It’s changed by the screen’s colour calibration, aspect ratio and settings, and it looks different on a CRT, beamer and retina screen. The data of an image is not the same as the light it produces.

It would be easy to claim that the lowest common element of digital graphics is text. Anything digital can be described perfectly in text as data, code, content, algorithms, etc. After all, it’s not real computation. But it’s not that simple. As you can see in this video, it’s possible to write code by pixeling in Photoshop. So, pixels and text can be interchangeable and neither is necessarily more “low-level” than the other. Another nice example is this page, where you create “pixels” by marking the text.


From koalastothemax.com. Click and play!

In the work with text-mode.tumblr.com I’ve thought a lot about this. One conclusion is that text-mode can show everything that pixels can. By using the full block text character (█), text art works like pixeling or digital photography – as long as the resolution is high and the palette is big enough.

In other words: any digital movie or image can be perfectly converted into text-mode as long as it’s “zoomed out” enough. This sort of watch-from-a-distance style applies to many other things of course, like the printing technique halftone. Halftone is pretty textmodey, especially when you can overlay several layers of text, like on a typewriter or on the forgotten Plato computer.

Alright, so. Normal thinking => images consists of pixels. Abnormal thinking => pixels consist of text characters (both literally and figuratively). The carpet by Faig Ahmed above is a traditional carpet design that’s been pixelized in the top half into a typical “retro” pattern. The bottom shows the original, which has many similarities to other ancient crafts. And to (non-typical) text-mode works using e.g PETSCII or ANSI.

So: digital imagery pretends to be analogue film but it actually shares more with e.g textiles and mosaics, which has looked digital for thousands of years. To replace the pixel metafor with the text mode metafor is to bring forth the medium and its history, instead of obscuring it. It’s also a way to put more emphasis on the decoding process, since we all accept that a text looks different depending on font, character encoding, screen, etc. And that’s pretty rare in times of media convergence psychosis.

Text-mode acknowledges that its building blocks (text characters) are not some kind of essential lowest level entity, but something that always consists of something else. And that’ll have to be the moral of this story.

3 Responses to “Text-mode Can Show Everything That Pixels Can, So…”

  1. michael Says:

    i agree with the moral – ceci n’est pas une image of a pipe… yet!

  2. Pavlov Says:

    Anders please check this video about Fototrama, some kind of early pixel stuff created by two argentinian designers in 1964:

  3. goto80 Says:

    Great find, thanks for sharing!

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