Sometimes an idea comes into one’s life from several angles at once. This week, for me, it was compression.

1. Compression and Information

I’ve been reading James Gleick’s “The Information” recently – just finished the chapter where he described Chaitin and Kolmogorov’s simultaneous discovery of the notion of “interestingness” and randomness of numbers, and the extent to which a number can be described by an algorithm that is shorter than the number itself. Some can, some can’t. (It’s hard to prove that a number can’t be compressed, or that any compression algorithm is the most concise.)

Chaitin considered applying this notion to science – a scientific theory is essentially an attempt to compress the observed data into a terser form (which, come to think of it, ignores the predictive quality of a theory – but anyway…).

Chewing this over in the back of my head, I thought that scientific theory is simply a more rigorous/structured form of our everyday functioning in this world. We compress information all the time. When dealing with people I know, I have a preset mental model of them that (usually) helps us to rub along together. When I drive, I deal with the road at a conceptual/symbolic level of white lines, traffic lights, road signs, speed limits, etc.

Compression of data in computer science can be loss-less (the uncompressed data can be reconstructed with absolute fidelity) or lossy (we only have a “good enough” facsimile of the original). The JPEG image compression used by most digital cameras, for example, is lossy, with “good enough” defined in terms of our ability to recognise the image after the “noise” is discarded.

Compression is good, it lets us get on with things.

There are times, though, when it’s necessary to uncompress, to experience life in it’s raw, undiluted glory, to become incapable of functioning in the normal way, because of the sheer grandeur of it all. To see everyone that we meet as an ineffable mystery, an unknown miracle, an impossible marvel. This is the experience written of my Rumi, Kabir, and other holy fools.

Being a living intelligence entails a certain balance between the compressed, capable outlook and being open to the point of incapability. every moment is a choice. I strongly suspect that sticking to either one is dangerous in the extreme. Certainly, mechanical, unreflexive compression can, in extreme, lead to the “them and us” thinking of racism, sexism and any other-ism, pigeon-holing of the light that inarguably resides in all of us (whatever it might be, no theological, rational or other baggage required) as “other”.

2. Compression and Comics

Scott McCloud gave an excellent opening talk at Kendal yesterday, at the Lakes International comic Art Festival, that touched on much more than the comic-book medium. Two things struck me particularly in what he said (amidst much else that I’m still digesting):

  • he described cartoons as compressed visual descriptions – shorthand notations for describing people that cut right through to the parts of our brains that recognise humans, stripping the visual description of everything but the bare minimum needed to communicate the character’s state of being.
  • digital comics have lifted some boundaries on the comics form that were previously taken for granted. They do not spell the instant demise of print comics, but they force practitioners of print into greater awareness of what they are doing e.g. printing on paper, working within a fixed page size. New media challenge the old media rather than killing them – challenge can be constructive.

So, compression. A compressed, cartooned character communicates more efficiently than a realistically rendered one. Reduced cognitive friction eases the flow of reading, which is, on the whole good. Provided our goal is to function. If, as in life, there is a balance to be struck between
functioning/getting through the day and some other transcendental outlook, then what is the visual equivalent of that? Can it buy us anything in terms of good storytelling – the higher goal that all the elements of comic-making should be serving – and can efficient cartooning lead to pigeon-holing, if practised mechanically?

Whatever the case, describing a character in any form of storytelling requires some deep insight into their inner lives. A writer must love all their characters if they’re to have life. I don’t know “the answers” to these, I suspect there are none, and would rather live with the questions. I’ll finish with a quote from Jacques Lusseyran, that seems appropriate, in describing how he saw other people after going blind:

“Frankly, hair, eyes, mouth, the necktie, the rings on fingers mattered very little to me. I no longer even thought about them. People no longer seemed to possess them. Sometimes in my mind, men and ladies appeared without heads or fingers. Then again, the lady in the armchair suddenly rose before me in her bracelet, turned into the bracelet itself. There were people whose teeth seemed to fill their whole faces, and others so harmonious they seemed to be made of music. But in reality, none of these sights is made to be described. They are so mobile, so alive, that they defy words.”

Try drawing that! Well, I’m going to try. Using photographs as a starting point – far removed from the cartoon approach. Wish me luck!

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