Visualizing The Future

Quicklinks on this Page

 Rough Cut: At First Sight
 Zoom In: Seeing the Big Bang
 Filter: What We Don't See
 Pan: Capturing Life in the New Millennium
 Close Up: Storytellers

Wide Angle

Shadows dance. Intense rays burn rock into dust. Cosmic radiation warps time and gives stars their twinkle. Rainbows hide in prisms. A fire burns. A mirror breaks. A bulb needs replacing. Even mystical lakes in fairytales reflect the sad face of a princess in search of her long, lost love.

Light. We need it to see. Our eyes take light and convert the universe into a paradise of image. Some even think God is light. Ancient Egyptians once worshiped the sun. Now, in the New Millennium, scientists are working on turning light into power.

How we see the world ranges from microscopes to telescopes to what we see inside our minds. And everyone sees things differently.

Light can play many tricks on our eyes...or is it our perceptions? The thrust behind exploring the world of visualization is really an exploration in reality vs. fantasy. The manipulation of reality is as easy as the manipulation of a photograph in Adobe's Photoshop.

Take the movie, Jurassic Park, for instance. We don't know what a dinosaur looks like, obviously, because no one has ever seen one. We rely on our current natural world and the insight of Paleontologists to give us the most likely scenario. After years of reconstructing dinosaurs from bones and the age in which they lived, paleontologists, archeologists, historians, and even philosophers and artists have done a pretty good job, we assume, of painting an accurate picture.

Steven Spielberg consulted a number of scientists and academicians before bringing dinosaurs to the screen. All along the route of recreation was a host of experts, writers, and graphic artists who provided a constant check and balance against what could and couldn't be. Common sense certainly played a role. Its unlikely dinosaurs were pink or paisley, or ran upside down, or spoke a language. But then again, in Hollywood, anything is possible. A talking pink dinosaur is not completely out of the question.

But seeing is far more subtle--and complex--than seeing a physical object or representation of a physical object. How we "see" the world is what we call our "worldview." When we look at the past or the future, some see triumph, others see disaster. Some people have wildly vivid imaginations. Others see the world in terms of black and white.

Some people look at the world through satellites floating in Outerspace. Others peer through microscopes at things billionths of nanometers small. Some claim they've seen "the coming of the Messiah" while still others claim they see nothing but evil in the world.

What we can't see with our eyes we see with our imaginations. There is no more powerful tool for visualization than the imagination. With imagination, we can see events before they happen. We can practice doing something before actually doing it, so we don't get hurt. Flight simulators serve this purpose. What we can't see, we can model and simulate, like weather patterns or the universe expanding (or contracting). We can also act out our sexual fantasies without breaking anyone's moral code.

Again, the overriding question is, "Is the world what we see with our own eyes or is it what we see in our minds?"

In crime, lawyers, judges and juries rely on witness testimonies and evidence to determine guilt or innocence. Sometimes witnesses lie; sometimes they are unsure of what they saw. Evidence can be circumstantial. Abuse cases are particularly troublesome since rarely does anyone ever see an abuser in action. Physical wounds can heal before they are photographed. And emotional abuse can't be photographed.

In journalism, journalists strive to be objective. The information they provide must come from reliable sources. But news organizations are well known for their "slant," often depicted in terms of liberal or conservative. And everyone knows liberals and conservatives most definitely do not see eye-to-eye. Some reporting agencies are biased, and in many instances, under harsh scrutiny, are clearly prejudiced.

Cultural differences are the most problematic. It is within the realm of culture that legends, myths and beliefs are the tools used to describe that which we cannot God. Terrorism in the name of religion is clearly an expression of how world cultures see things differently. However, terrorism doesn't work. An act of terrorism does not help us see the other side of an argument. In fact, it blinds us. We are not persuaded; we are horrified.

We live in a media-saturated culture. Children are endlessly bombarded with images ranging from depictions of Santa Claus to Daffy Duck getting his beak blown off in a cartoon. Get a little older and cartoons turn into video games. Video games turn into computer screens, TV and the movies. And anything channeled through a media device is manipulated. It is not reality; it is a representation of reality, even with real life documentaries and "reality" TV shows.

Most urban environments are but a fragment of what was once indigenous. We have so altered the landscape that many people have completely lost touch with what nature really looks like. We've turned deserts into resorts, removed mountains, and changed the course of rivers. It's a wonder the sea isn't colored chartreuse.

The views of science are as intriguing and dramatic as anything Hollywood creates, maybe even more so. What does a nanotube look like, something only billionths of a meter long or high? Without an accurate measuring stick, it's impossible to see a "meter" yet alone a "nanometer." Looking outward, no one knows what the "Big Bang" looked like. We don't even know what a meteor falling to earth looks like since it happens in seconds and we could never be close enough to witness the impact.

And then there's intelligent design. God is almost always referred to as "he." Since no one has ever seen God, then obviously "he" is a projected image. Then again, some people will say they see God in everything. Referring to God as "she" is still considered a joke in most circles, something only a comedian or irate feminist would say. God is certainly not a transsexual, the suggestion of which would be considered an act of heresy by many. God could also be black or white. The "he" reference leaves so much to be desired. Is "he" a child, an old man, or does "he" look like Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or is God not a person at all, but a force; an invisible force we cannot see, but only imagine?

Some things in life happen too fast, too faraway, in the past or future, or behind rock so thick not even Superman can see with X-ray vision. We send probes into Outerspace and into the earth's crust to do our looking for us. We use time-lapse photography to show us how things look as they change over time. Our vision is limited. We need pictures.

There are two myths this exploration into the visual realm will help destroy. First, there is the belief that "Every picture tells a story." Two, "A picture says 1000 words." Sure, pictures tell stories, but what stories? Anyone who has ever lighted a subject in a photography studio or worked with a graphics program like Photoshop knows to what extent pictures can be altered. When it comes to moving pictures, Hollywood has no qualms about spending millions of dollars to shape a 30 second scene precisely according to a director's "vision." When it comes to a 1000 words, in the news, it's not often what the camera sees but what it doesn't that tells the "real" story, or the "other side" of the story.

In other words, how many of us are living in fantasy worlds and don't even know it?

A popular theme running through many college curriculums is the "deconstruction of reality." In simpler terms, the theme is an attempt to cut through the "hype." But then, just what is hype? How has the advertising community used imagery to influence us as consumers? How have history books used words, pictures and drawings to portray characters and events from the past? How do Whites see Blacks and Blacks see Whites? Is the suicide bomber from Iraq a terrorist or freedom fighter?

There are other myths such as, "I'll believe it when I see it," or, "I won't believe it until I can hold it in my hands," and "Seeing is believing." Few poets would argue that the more people who can "see with their hearts," a better place the world would be.

The tools for visualization in the 21st century have become quite sophisticated. From electron microscopes to camera probes on distant planets, from 3D architectural rendering and war simulation software to digital art and webcams--it's safe to say, we want to see everything.

Yet, the biggest question of all: How do we see the future? What does the future look like to someone who's blind? How will the world look to a blind person fitted with artificially-intelligent eyes? What exactly are we seeing or not seeing that determines a positive or negative outlook? What blocks our vision? Is it intelligence? Is it hate? Is it fear? Or is it alcohol and drugs? And...Nothing obscures the vision more than when we are hurting. Being free from pain allows us to see things more clearly, and if not, at least more positively.

Rough Cut: At First Sight

The world's oldest known cave paintings were discovered in the Fumane Cave in northern Italy, near Verona, according to a BBC news article. The paintings are between 32,000 and 36,500 years old. In another article, an archeological team found pigments and paint grinding equipment in a cave at Twin Rivers, near Lusaka, Zambia, believed to be between 350,000 and 400,000 years old.

According to a University of California-Berkeley 2003 press release, the fossilized skulls of two adults and one child were discovered in the Afar region of eastern Ethiopia, dated at 160,000 years. The press release further claims the skulls as the oldest known fossils of modern humans, or Homo sapiens.

Apparently paint outlasts bones, an eerie foreshadowing of humankind's current obsession for documenting everything in site. Foreshadow begets irony. We now bury deep within the earth's surface and send far into Outerspace, select items "we" think will best represent what human beings are or were like…you know, for aliens and other people of the future.

Zoom In: Seeing the Big Bang

Contrast the archeological discoveries with the current scientific need to not only explain the Big Bang, but to see it. Science-and just about anyone, for that matter-wants desperately to see the past. The mission of the NASA Explorer project, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), is to reveal conditions as they existed in the early universe by measuring the properties of the cosmic microwave background radiation over the full sky. WMAP data is allegedly accurate in telling the age of our universe within a 1% margin of error. Keeping decimal places to a minimum, the answer is: 13.7 billion years old.

What scientists and all their data fail to see, is that we-the masses-have a difficult time "seeing" the big bang. What does cosmic microwave background radiation look like? We hardly remember yesterday yet alone imagining life 13 plus billion years ago. What's even worse is when the 3.7 billion number is misprinted. Would we really know the difference between 3.7 and 4.7 billion?

Filter: What We Don't See

Skulls that are 160,000 years old? Cave paintings 35,000 years old? Somehow a skull just doesn't help visualize what the rest of the person looked like, and it certainly doesn't tell us anything about personality, thoughts, dreams, jobs and love affairs. Well, they really didn't have jobs back then, so they say. Back then humans spent most of the time questing for fire and fighting dinosaurs…so they say.

Dinosaurs, by the way, date back 230 million years or so, give or take a day. They went extinct about 65 million years ago. Theories abound, but the most popular explanation for dinosaur extinction was a meteorite.

A meteorite so powerful it can knock out a whole range of species…now that's something to see.

Prehistoric cave paintings are often enigmatic and subject to much interpretation. Some drawings resemble four-legged beasts while others look like human figures with animal heads. Is that what they really look like? Isn't it more like a Rorschach test?

The Rorschach test-now there's an interesting way to view the world around us.

Fast forward-a visualization technique in itself-we rip through the centuries to find humankind becoming quite adept at capturing and reflecting the world visually. In paintings and drawings, visual expression was static; there were no moving pictures. Sculpture and architecture gave us a more dynamic 3D, if not 4th and 5th dimensional.

Ancient ruins scattered across the globe are treasures for anyone's eyes. What do they tell us about the past? What hints do we glimpse of the future? We might see a moment in time, but how do we see the passage of time?

Prehistoric bones and other broken relics of the past never tell the full story. Paintings-as remarkable works of art though they might be-really don't fare much better in storytelling. A painting of a queen tells us nothing of how she moved or talked. In ruins-as remarkable works of art though they might be-tell us nothing of rooms, tunnels and trap doors that may have existed, holding secrets no one will ever know. We can't hear the countless conversations that took place on stoned benches or in gardens...or behind closed doors.

Pan: Capturing Life in the New Millennium

It really wasn't until the 20th century we began developing techniques for permanently archiving the past. Chemically treated paintings in temperature controlled rooms allow countless works of fine art to last far beyond what nature intended. Nearly every photo, graphic, drawing, blueprint and technical rendering is now digitized. Once digitized, it is then backed up, maybe more than once. And now, nanotechnologically-coated buildings will last eons.

Our system for preservation isn't perfect. In 2005, a hurricane like Katrina demonstrated how everything can be wiped out in a matter of hours. The city of New Orleans was never backed up. There is no replica. And very few companies or individuals were savvy enough to backup their files in a distant location in the event of such a natural catastrophe.

Since the disaster, there are plenty of photos and movies enough so that we really don't need to see the whole thing. We don't need to re-experience the whole thing to know what it was like. But, a video capture of a corpse floating down the flooded streets of New Orleans tells a different story than another video capture of an old woman being rescued from a burning house by a heroic firefighter.

So whatever pictures, graphics, photos, films and other renderings we have, there still remains the question of what exactly do they all represent? Do we get a visual of how the world really is at a given moment, or is it how we interpret such reproductions? Only the architect really knows how the building will look from a blueprint rendering. Usually the architect builds a scaled model, so others can see what a structure will look like.

Architecture goes far beyond mere single structures. There are planned communities, city expansion, highway networks and transcontinental optical and satellite networks. For every one person who is capable of "drawing" up such a vast plan, the rest of us sit back and watch.

So, most of the world around us is an expression of very few visionaries in contrast to the masses. If asked, no doubt most of us would have an opinion on at least one place a road should go or what color a particular building should be. But, seldom are most of us ever asked about how we "see" things.

Close Up: Storytellers

Whatever holes in history remain unfilled by ruins, paintings and chipped fossils, words come to the rescue. Our world is deeply enriched by literature old and new. Whether it's the Bible, Faust, Aesop's Fables, Alice in Wonderland, War and Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird or Harry Potter, wordsmiths have shaped our view of the world far beyond the limits of our own imaginations.

The enduring question is: At what price has reality been sacrificed? We've got cave paintings, skulls, relics, broken architecture and now fanciful words to weave exotic tales. But do we really see what was or what is?

In the Digital Age, it seems ironic illiteracy would be a major global issue. Poverty and lack of resources explains most of the 3rd world illiteracy problems. But it's the media that explains why so many people in the Industrial and Digital Age are unable to read anything much beyond a newspaper headline. Well, that's the critical view.

Worldwide sales for the Harry Potter series of books-7 in total-has reached the 250 million mark. The seventh book, as of 2005, has yet to be published. Of course, J.K. Rowling's imaginative tales of a young wizard amounts to nothing short of a phenomenon. Still, the publishing industry shows no signs of slowed growth. In fact, thanks to the Internet, particularly websites like, book sales have increased, eBooks are read on laptops and self-publishing has become a cottage industry.

Plus, the Google search engine claims to search over 4 billion web pages, most of which are comprised of text.

When language began is a controversial debate. Some say it started from day one, in the Garden of Eden. Others say 150,000 years ago, when humans were ape-like, beating their chests and uttering animal sounds. Since we don't know, we can only imagine.

When we can't imagine, and when fragmented rocks, bits of bones and time-worn cave paintings leave us wanting, it is the storyteller who paints the picture for us.

Ancient storytellers were once the only form of entertainment around. From African witchdoctors to American Indian wise men, from Aesop to grandpa sitting around a campfire, these word-of-mouth storytellers gave us an engaging way to remember past events and pass them on to new generations. But, as we all know, storytellers have a tendency to fib a little…you know, stretch the truth for dramatic purposes.

In the new millennium, storytelling is big business. New technologies like DVD, the Internet, supercomputers, satellite/wireless and nanotechnology allow for the transmission and storage of huge amounts of visual/audio data across a global network. From digital film (an oxymoron) to computer simulations, from text descriptions to mathematical formulas, we've captured just about everything.

We can see the universe expanding. We can see a cell forming. We can look out across millions of light-years and watch matter crash into anti-matter. We can see war, poverty, disease and crime. We watch graphs that help us predict earthquakes and hurricanes. We simulate battlefield scenarios during the development of new weapons.

The problem is that we humans just don't see eye-to-eye on certain things. Sometimes we're not sure what we see. Was it a foggy night? Are you sure the license plate read UFH-443 and not UFF-887? When you heard the shot, did it sound like it came from in the house or the shed? Did you happen to take a picture of the "thing" you saw flying across the sky?

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