How Electrons Remember
Laura U. Marks
In this essay I will argue that electronic images
are the index, if not of an original object, then at least of a
physical process. Without sounding too anthropomorphic, I want to
suggest that electrons remember. There are two problems to be addressed.
First, what is the material basis of electronic imaging? Second, is
this material basis significantly different for analog and digital
electronic imaging? I invite the reader to assume a subatomic empathy
as we look at the life of the electrons in electronic imaging.
Electrons exemplify what Manuel De Landa calls nonorganic
life. De Landa argues that supposedly inert matter, from crystals
to the rocks and sand in a river bed, exhibits self-organizing behavior
and even acquires experience, which entitle it to be considered nonorganic
In effect, De Landa is arguing not that rocks are like humans
so much as that humans are like rocks. Yet the reverse is implicit:
he effectively rearticulates life as something that is not the sole
property of organic creatures. The same nonorganic life exists at the
level of subatomic particles. The memory that I attribute to electrons
does not have to do with will or self-consciousness, but with an emergent
self-organizing principle. Like De Landa, physicist David Bohm argued that
the distinction between organic life and nonorganic matter is arbitrary.
He gives the example of a tree: it grows from a seed, whose DNA molecule
organizes matter into a tree; but Bohm says it doesn't make sense to say,
for example, a CO2 molecule is inorganic until it becomes part of the tree,
then it's organic. 2
Bohm's example underscores an argument that all elements
are part of a (nonorganically) living whole. For the electron, the
living whole in which it partakes is the wave forms that unify all
It is common for critics of digital media to note
that in digital media the indexical link between image and represented
object is irrevocably severed. In photography, film, and analog video
it is possible to trace a physical path from the object represented,
to the light that reflects off it, to the photographic emulsion or cathode
ray tube that the light hits, to the resulting image. In digital imaging
this path is not retraceable, for an additional or alternative step is
added; namely, converting the image into data that can then be manipulated,
and thereby breaking the link between image and physical referent. In the
digital image, it is not possible to track where and when particular interventions
in the image were made. After an image is digitized, any iteration of
the image may be altered, and there is no "generational" difference to
alert us to the stage at which the change was made. For many this qualitative
change occasions fear for the status of the image as real. Practically,
as a result of the potential digital alteration of any electronic image,
video and photography can no longer serve as indexical evidence, for example
in the courtroom. Theoretically, the semiotic foundation of photographic
images in the real is thought to be destroyed in digital media.
These concerns are accurate, though it is exaggerating
to see the advent of digital media as a watershed between truthful
and constructed imagemaking, as historians show that these media have
been tinkered with since their inceptions. What I question in the current
rhetoric about the loss of indexicality in the digital image is that
it assumes a concurrent loss of materiality of the image. As a
result it is assumed that digital images are fundamentally immaterial,
and that for example to enter cyberspace or to use VR is to enter a realm
of pure ideas and leave the "meat" of the material body behind. Digital
and other electronic images are constituted by material processes no
less than photography, film, and analog video are.
When we look at the physical process whereby electronic
images are constituted and transmitted, we find that it is possible
to retrace the path traversed by the image. Electronic imaging is
indexical in the broadest sense, in that the medium bears the physical
mark of the object whose image it transmits. This can be argued if
I can convince the reader not only that electrons exist (i.e. are not
reducible to waves or to probabilities), but that because of particle-wave
relationship, all matter is fundamentally interconnected. (Please be
satisfied that I will argue this with reference to hard-core physics and
not mystical interpretations thereof!) Basically, I will argue that the
analog or indexical relationship is maintained insofar as the activity
of electrons can be traced to a wave function. When the wave function
is broken, the indexical bond is lost as well. Yet we can still trace
the basis of digital information in interconnected matter.
Certainly the electronic image, both analog and
digital, would seem to be a physical object insofar as it is constituted
by a barrage of electrons. Gene Youngblood pointed this out back in the analog
days: "On the most fundamental level electronic visualization refers to the
video signal itself as a plastic medium, as the 'material' of electronic
presence.... This isn't visual art or picture-making; it is the thing itself,
the visible process of the electronic substance."
Yet in my plunge into the world of physics, I have found that
physics is still fraught with questions concerning the entity of the
electron. Roughly put, is it a particle or is it a wave, is it a thing
or merely a symptom, and does matter as such exist or can it only be
approximated by equations?
Do they exist, and can we know where they are?
To trace the various electronic pathways through
cathode ray tubes, silicon chips, copper cables, optical fibers and
their other media, it is first necessary to look at the behavior of
individual electrons. This means entering the world of particle physics.
The excursion into theoretical physics that follows cleaves to the
minority "realist" interpretation associated with Einstein, Schrödinger
to a degree, David Bohm, and James Bell, as opposed to the dominant
"positivist" argument associated with Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr.
This argument in physics is remarkably similar to semiotic arguments
about the relationship of the sign to reality, and hence the question
of whether reality is knowable in itself or only through signs. In a
comparison between physics and semiotics, realists like Bohm are more
like Charles Sanders Pierce, while positivists like Heisenberg are more
like Ferdinand de Saussure. The former argue for a material connection
between reality and the description of reality, while the latter argue
that the connection between the two is entirely symbolic. A materialist
myself, I choose to learn from Bohm's theories for the same reason that
my semiotic loyalties lie with Pierce. I beg the indulgence of readers
who have studied theoretical physics or electronic engineering, for whom
the following will be annoyingly simplified.
It may surprise other readers, as it surprised me,
that quantum physics is now considered not a radical theory but an orthodoxy
among physicists, to the degree that an acronym, QUODS, has been coined
for members of the quantum-orthodoxy-doubting subculture.
Since we humanities scholars are supposed to mistrust orthodoxies
of all sorts, this news may invite us to look more sympathetically
upon the continuing debates among this century's physicists.
Most physicists, following Schrödinger (as
interpreted by Bohr), Heisenberg, Max Born, and others, believe that at a
quantum level we cannot know matter as such.
Most quantum physics is non-objective, i.e., does not
assume that its mathematical models have a physical counterpart in
the world. They argue that at a quantum level the rules of classical
physics, which do describe the behavior of matter, do not apply. In
contrast, the pocket of "realists" represented most strongly by Einstein
and Bohm posited an ontological theory of quantum mechanics: namely, that
quantum mechanics does not simply provide a mathematical model for the
world but describes how things are. For the realists, there is continuity
between classical and quantum physics. Bohm's ontological theory, still
in the minority in physics, posits that electrons do exist and that their
relation to waves is one of "implication." In the following I expand on
Quantum orthodoxy was established with the widespread
acceptance of Schrödinger's wave equation, published in 1926.
This equation (as interpreted by Born) gives the probability of where
an electron will be at a given moment:
p = h/(lambda)
or the momentum of the electron varies inversely
with the wavelength (h is Planck's constant). (To predict
where an electron is likely to be, look at where Schrödinger's
wave function has a large amplitude. Where the amplitude is small,
electrons will be scarce.) The equation was revolutionary because it
combined particle and wave functions, making it possible to interpret
the behavior of matter as both wavelike and particlelike. What takes
the equation out of the realm of materialism (describing physical matter)
and into positivism (describing only what can be observed) is that the
electron's position remains unknown, and the wave equation can only predict
the probability of its whereabouts. (Similarly, matrix quantum mechanics
explains quantum behavior in mathematical terms that cannot be expressed
physically.) In 1927 Werner Heisenberg took this development further in
the direction of positivism with his uncertainty principle. When an electron
that has been struck by a gamma ray emits a photon, whose momentum is designated
p and position is designated q,
d q is less than or equal to h (d is delta)
--the product of the change in momentum and
position never exceeds Planck's constant (h). Using this equation we can
calculate the photon's momentum with great precision if we give up knowing
anything about its position, and vice versa. Further, the equation implies
that we can't know either of these quantities independently, just their
statistical spread d. contradiction? (The same equation describes
the relationship of time and energy.)
According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle,
the measurer of subatomic particles is part of the experimental
situation and influences its outcome, for electrons behave differently
when they are being "watched." It would seem that the wave only collapses
into a single electron when it is being measured. if it's measured
with a wave detector, waves are detected; if with a particle detector,
particles are detected.
This finding by Heisenberg and Bohr suppporting the emerging
belief that said the electron is epistemologically unknowable.
Heisenberg's uncertainty principle has filtered
into popular culture in a slew of metaphors, for example the argument
that people behave differently when they are observed by a camera
than they would if the camera were not there. But physicists continue
to debate how to interpret it. Mathematician David Wick points out
that quantum mechanics is unique in that its equations are known but
not its principles. 8
In other words, quantum mechanics is a epistemological system,
not an ontological one. Yet for most physicists, the fact that quantum
mechanics works "for all practical purposes" deterred them from investigating
further. The quotable Einstein once compared the "'Bohr-Heisenberg
tranquilizing philosophy' to a soft pillow on which to rest one's head"
: it cannot explain matter, but it successfully describes it.
For the most part, quantum mechanics has gone on to other things, with
this unknowability tucked away in its fundamental equations.
Meanwhile, however, the physicists in whom I
am interested were not satisfied with the mere practicality of quantum
equations. They wanted to explain the nature of matter, and thus had
to return to the wave-particle relationship. Bohm argued, following
the "pilot wave" theory proposed by Louis de Broglie in 1927, that a
single electron is a member of a whole of many electrons, joined in a
common wave. This hypothesis follows from Schrödinger's equation,
which although it is used to calculate the probability that the electron
is doing certain things, also describes a relationship between electron
and wave. According to Bohm, each electron on a given wavelength has the
wave function encoded into it. It "remembers" where it came from, and thus
remains linked to other electrons sharing the wave even when they are physically
far distant. This means that the photons of sunlight that warm our faces
are physically connected to the star that emitted them, arriving on a common
Electrons also "remember" their more proximate
relationship to their neighbors. In a single atom each electron
in a single atom has its own distinct set of quantum numbers (the
size of its orbit; the shape of its orbit; the direction in which the
orbit is pointing; and the "spin" of the electron right??). It
"knows the address" of all the others and knows not to enter their territory,
for if it did the atom would implode.
The idea that electrons can somehow communicate
their position to each other is paradoxical because it contradicts
the known principles of electromagnetism and relativity. As David Wick
explains, "In Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, a particle could
only be influenced by force fields in its immediate vicinity. Relativity,
through its prohibition of influences propagating faster than light,
ruled out everything else. But a glance at Bohm's equations for a pair
of particles revealed that both could be affected by
a magnetic field present at the location of one of them" (84).
This paradox was simple for Bohm to test, using an experiment devised
by Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen. Two charged atoms in a
molecule are separated and sent to two devices called that detect the particle's
"spin." In the laboratory the atoms travel perhaps a few centimeters,
but in principle they could be at the ends of the universe...
After many runs,
detector 1 reads UUDUDDDU…
detector 2 reads DDUDUUUD…
– in other words, the particles continue to behave as though they
are related. The experiment suggests that each particle “knows” what
the other is doing. The direction of either particle cannot be known until
it is measured, that is, until the wave function is collapsed. In effect
one particle must “wait” until the other particle is measured, and then
take the opposite value accordingly. A classical explanation would require
some local hidden variable to “tell” each particle what state to assume
when it was measured and then to communicate it to the other, which would
assume the opposite state. This is impossible because the particles would
have to communicate at faster than the speed of light. The realist Einstein
worried about this “spooky action at a distance”
that cannot be explained classically. Later thought experiments
by John Bell determined quantum theory could explain nonlocality.
Nonlocality has been demonstrated experimentally. Most strikingly,
in a recent experiment in Switzerland, photons separated by an EPR device
have traveled over 10 km.11
It works, whether the explanation is accepted or not!
Meanwhile, however, realist physicists were not satisfied with the
mere practicality of quantum equations. They wanted to explain the nature
of matter, and thus had to return to the wave-particle relationship.
David Bohm argued, following the “pilot wave” theory proposed by Louis
de Broglie in 1927,12
that a single electron is a member of a whole of many electrons,
joined in a common wave. This hypothesis follows from Schrödinger’s
equation, which although it is used to calculate the probability that
the electron is doing certain things, also describes a relationship between
electron and wave. According to Bohm, each electron on a given wavelength
has the wave function encoded into it. It “remembers” where it came from,
and thus remains linked to other electrons sharing the wave even when they
are physically far distant. This means that the photons of sunlight that
warm our faces are physically connected to the star that emitted them, arriving
on a common wave.
Electrons also “remember” their more proximate relationship to their
neighbors. Each electron in a single atom has its own distinct set of
quantum numbers (the size of its orbit; the shape of its orbit; the direction
in which the orbit is pointing; and the “spin” of the electron). Knowing
its own address, it also knows not to enter other electrons’ territory,
for if it did the atom would implode.
Bohm argues that electrons are connected by invisible forces. Electrons
are like corks bobbing on waves in the sea. If one electron moves, the
paths of the other electrons that are entangled with it on a shared wave
will be modified. And we know from lakes and bathtubs that when waves
cross each other they create interference. Matter, then, is composed of
waves that are thoroughly and intimately interrelated. And electrons ride
The above foray into quantum physics is all to argue that individual
electrons, for example in a cathode ray tube, act as a whole in their
connection with other electrons. Quantum theory’s principle of nonlocality
means that even distant objects affect each other as part of a single
system. The whole cannot be reduced to an analysis in terms of its constituent
parts. Not only electrons in proximity to each other – for example, those
coursing to their demise on the video screen – but electrons as far apart
as those in my hands typing in Ottawa and your eyes reading in Seoul, share
a common wave.
Of course, this sounds “spooky” according to the classical way we
think about space. Keep in mind that the categories Schrödinger,
Heisenberg, and Bohr were using – position, momentum, time – are categories
of Cartesian space. Schrödinger’s probability and Heisenberg’s uncertainty
describe relationships in Cartesian space, with unsatisfactory results.
Quantum theory argues that we must accept these paradoxes because
matter behaves differently at a quantum level than at a macro level. But
could there be another order in which these relationships could be described
with more certainty?
Bohm proposes that they can, in his theory of the implicate order,
which explains nonlocal connections in terms of implicit patterns. He
uses the terms explicate, or unfolded, for that which is apparent in
a given system, and implicate, or enfolded, for that which is latent in
the same system. 15
Bohm’s elegant illustration is a model of two glass cylinders,
one inside the other, with a layer of viscous fluid, like glycerin,
between them, but otherwise airtight. When a drop of ink is put in the
liquid and the inside cylinder revolves, the ink drop is drawn out into
a thread or unfolded; when it is revolved in the other direction, the
thread of ink is enfolded back to a dot.
The line is implicate in the dot. A more controversial example
of implicate order is the idea that when I stick pins in a figure representing
my enemy, my enemy, wherever he or she may be, suffers as a result. Voodoo
might be explained in terms of nonlocal connections between the two of
us. (Not to say that Bohm would have believed in voodoo.) What Bohm’s principle
of the implicate order means for physics is that we need not distinguish
between particle and wave, saying we can measure only one or the other.
According to the implicate order, the electron is enfolded in the wave
that carries it, and unfolds or expresses itself when necessary – for example,
when a light wave hits the surface of a cathode ray tube.
Bohm’s ideas were ridiculed or dismissed by most physicists.
A few have developed them, notably John Bell. Einstein himself
remained a realist to his death in 1955. It appears to this non-physicist
that the field is beginning to entertain the idea of non-locality again,
for example on the Quantum Mind newsgroup.
If all matter is intimately
interconnected by wave-surfing electrons, then all electronic images
have an indexical or analog connection to – matter. But to what degree
do they keep an indexical or analog connection to the object of which
they are images? In this section, taking a tip from Youngblood's materialist
enthusiasm, I trace the electronic pathway for an analog video image
and then for its digital counterpart.
Say we have a camera, any
camera. The light that reflects off an object and is focused on
the camera lens is composed of waves. Light waves are only reflected
if they are the same wavelength as that of the "object" that reflects
them; so of all the light waves that bombard a blue flower, only those
of the same blue wavelength will be reflected. So we might say (not
yet distinguishing between particles and waves) that "blue" electrons,
electrons with wavelength blue, will hit the camera lens at the appropriate
point. But of course millions of electrons of all wavelengths will converge
upon the lens, producing an image that is the analog of the object. Note
that a wavelength is an index, in this case of the color of light.
Inside the vidicon tube of an analog video
camera, the image is focused not on a lens but on a photoconducting
layer (made of a semiconductor like selenium)
. Incident light "excites" electrons in the photoconductor,
dislodging them at wavelengths that continue to correspond to the
colors of the object being recorded. Then the electron beam from the
vidicon's cathode scans the surface of the photoconductor (at the rate
of 525 lines per second in NTSC format). To "recognize" the wavelength
of blue, the beam takes on the charge of the electrons/waves ejected by
the photoconductor, restoring the photoconductor to its previous charge.
The electron beam sends an electronic signal of the same wavelength
to the monitor. This means that individual electrons travel all the way
from the cathode to the screen, where they crash and die a brilliant death
in the release of thousands of photons, forming the light patterns on
the phosphor-coated surface of a video monitor. At 250 pixels per scanline
times the same number of lines (in a consumer video camera), this means
that each video frame is composed of 625,000 electronic pulses. That's
625,000 electrons crashing on the screen, 60 times a second. So in a conventional
analog video image we know that 37,500,000 electrons are giving up their
existence every second in order to bring us an image. In broadcast, the
same set of waves disperses into the ether, perhaps to be received by
a satelite transponder. The point of this analog map is to show that a
calculable number of electrons move along a set of common wavelengths all
the way from the object to the image. When an image is broadcast, its indexical
likeness undulates to the ends of the universe on the waveforms that compose
Images may also be transferred along wires
or optical cables. When energy is applied to a wire, a wave populated
by hordes of electrons conducts electricity by equilibrating the
changing pressure of electrons pushed to one end of the wire. Here
their motion is governed by the wave function, as foot traffic in Grand
Central Station is governed by the arrival and departure of trains.
In transmission along an optic fiber, electrons surge along on the wavelength
of light. In all these forms of transmission, the images retains an
indexical relationship to the object they represent, thanks to the particle-wave
Now let us imagine an alternative electronic
path, this time for an image produced by a digital video camera,
stored on a hard disk, and digitally projected. We will see that this
activity continues in large part to be wave-driven, that is, constituted
by streams of electrons and thus as indexical in the analog situation.But
there are two important differences, based on the fact that most computers,
being digital, rely on approximations.
What happens when an image is digitized?
First, we must keep in mind that digitization is only one way of
encoding imformation. Since currently we use digital computers more
than any other encoding system for complex information, "digitization"
has come to mean encoding. Say we have a still, color image. To digitize
the image, a program divides the image surface into small areas (also
called pixels) and calculates for each a set of numerical values. These
correspond to the intensity, or number of photons per second, for the
frequencies of red, green and blue. The resulting values are translated
in turn to a string of 0s and 1s. In this process there are two ways
that the richness of the analog information is diluted. One is in the
number of pixels assigned to the image. The other is the amount of memory
devoted to calculating the intensity per pixel. When you set your monitor
to calculate "256 colors" or "thousands of colors," you are assigning
how long those memory strings are allowed to be.
Loss of indexicality
This simple step is the first crucial challenge
to both the indexicality of the image and the individuality of the
electrons. It is here that the image loses its indexical or existential
connection to its referent. Light waves whose frequency and intensity
physically represent the color of the object are translated into symbols
when the image is encoded in strings of numbers. At this point loss
of indexicality is not a question of image quality -- a digital image
may have higher resolution than an analog image -- but of the physical
relationship of image to object. Digitization breaks the analogical relationship
between object and image, henceforth rendered as information. We shall
see that there is another point, perhaps more crucial, where the indexical
relationship is broken.
However, within digital circuits, electrons
continue to exert themselves in analog ways. To demonstrate this,
let me trace the electron's path in the most workaday medium of digital
calculations, the silicon chip. Silicon, which is cheap and can be
highly refined, is the most popular medium for digital calculations in
applications from coffeemakers to smart weapons. Like other elements
in the fourth column of the periodic table, silicon is indifferently
promiscuous: the four electrons in its outer valence allow silicon atoms
to form an extensive network of electromagnetic bonds (compare the
"noble gases" such as neon, which have the full complement of eight
electrons, allowing these atoms to remain imperiously alone). Silicon's
four-electron bonding produces a crystal structure that is both stable
and ductile. While the metals are conductors, meaning that metal atoms
catch and pass electrons with the energy of a high-speed unidirectional
soccer game, silicon, which moves electrons more sluggishly, is termed a
semiconductor (as is its heavier fourth-column cousin germanium, as well
as oxides such as copper oxide).
Molecular chemists learned to control the purification process
whereby silicon is "doped" with a few atoms per billion of boron or phosphorus
(among other elements) to produce a slight under- or overpopulation of
These impurities cause electrons to flow in only one direction through
the material. Where negative, there are more free-floating electrons than
can be held by the silicon atoms in the crystal lattice, which rush to
distance themselves from a charge; where positive, there are a few "holes"
to which electrons eagerly migrate when a charge is applied. Fusing micron-thin
layers of positive- and negative-charged silicon produces transistors
(chips) which sophisticatedly control the flow of electrons.
Here Schrödinger's equation returns
to explain why semiconductors are so susceptible to even the smallest
charge yet, unlike metals, do not produce much heat. Quantum statistics
dictates that in a given assembly, be it a single atom or a large
crystal, only one electron can possess a given wave function.
Put otherwise, an electron can occupy only a given band in the
"orbit" of an atom. When voltage is applied to silicon doped with phosphorus,
the extra electrons are only too eager to make the quantum jump to a higher
state of excitation--chemistry's anthropomorphic term for electrons with
no place to go but up.24
The energy thus produced can be measured in terms of electrons
per unit per second, where the unit is a gate in a silicon chip or a
pixel. Such a calculation would establish the individual contributions
of our hard-working electrons.
Within the silicon chip, then, electrons
continue to ride waves in a micro-indexical way. In any transistor-reliant
device, hordes of excited electrons are speeding through gates and
causing other hordes of electrons to get excited and seek a wavelength
of their own, in a ceaseless, frantic relay race. Digital computers
by definition work with the binary difference of on and off signals
or positive and negative signals. Its OR, AND, NOT and NAND circuits
are operated by combinations of these signals. These circuits are themselves
electron pathways. For example, the OR circuit has two or more inputs
and one output, and it emits a pulse if any of the inputs receives a
In other words, the OR circuit is designed so that if a herd of
excited electrons surges (through a wire of gold, copper or aluminum)
into any of its inputs, it will release a herd of excited electrons
in turn. it would seem from this description that the behavior of electrons
in silicon chips continues to index their associated wave.
Loss of indexicality 2
The crucial characteristic of digital computers
that breaks the indexical relationship is the same characteristic
that makes computers accurate. Digital computers cannot tolerate intermediate
states between 0 and 1. Every circuit contains a "flip-flop" circuit
that eliminates intermediate states by ignoring weak signals. Only a strong
signal, the cumulative behavior of masses of electrons, registers a
change in the circuit. It is at this point that the wave-particle relationship
is overriden. The flip-flop circuit pays attention only to huge hordes
of electrons and quashes the efforts of the few. In this herd behavior,
any change in the state of an individual electron is obviated by changes
in the whole. Thus in digital computers, quantum non-locality, or the
shared properties of electrons on a common wave, is not observable.
Our friend the electron gets lost in the herd.
Just for fun, let's say that the final image
is digitally projected using one of the new projectors designed by
Texas Instruments and Hughes-JVC. This requires a rectangular array
of 1.3 million mirrors, each .016 mm wide. Each mirror has a corresponding
microchip cell that emits pulses of 1 or 0 which cause the mirror to
tilt 10° in one direction or the other.
The electron path here is 1.3 million herds of electrons, each of
which conducts a pixel of information to the screen. In digital projection,
as in initial digitization and memory storage, both analog and digital
processes are at work.
In each pathway I have described, analog
and digital, the transmission of electronic data can be traced to
the actions of electrons, or, depending on your point of view, to
the wave pattern that organizes them. These road maps show that an
electronic image, whether it is analog or digital,
is implicate, or enfolded, in the interconnected mass of electrons that
transmit it along common waves. In digital imaging, however, two steps
intervene to break the indexical bond: one that approximates analog
information to a symbolic number, and one (repeated in every circuit)
that obviates the wave-particle relationship.
The enfolded image
In the analog electron pathway, if we believe
Bohm's princilpe of nonlocality, the image remains enfolded in the
waves that carry it from source to transmission. In the digital pathway,
information is enfolded in the pulses that travel
through the computer, but the initial indexical relationship is lost.
Yet one does not have to agree with Bohm's principle of nonlocality
to argue that a digital image is enfolded in its code.In digital computers
the image is doubly enfolded: once when it is encoded as strings of
0s and 1s, and again when this information is enfolded in the charge
of particles or the length of waves. Analog electronic imaging involves
only the second process of enfolding.
To explore the difference between encoding
in a language (such as a computer code) and enfolding in a wave,
let me digress briefly to describe an artwork for computer by Thibaud
Beghin, a Muslim artist who lives in Lille, France. In his work
Virtual Prayers , Islamic prayers are represented in the
abstract and decorative Arabic script typical of traditional Islamic
(iconoclastic) visual art. Beghin transmits these prayers in encoded
form over the internet or in digital files. They may manifest onscreen
in a recognizable image, in the explicate version; or they may be "enfolded"
in ASCII code and thus inscrutable. A religious person would say that
the digital code is itself the explicate manifestation of an implicate
order, that of prayer. This encodement seems an appropriate means of
transmission for a religious message that is subject to censorship and
tends to spread clandestinely. One can imagine these prayers being received
by a Muslim in a secular state or one where Muslims are persecuted. As
an image their status is very tentative--they are virtual prayers, potential
prayers, prayers that the code retains even when they are not manifest
in an image legible to humans. Beghin does produce them as ink-jet prints,
where each dot represents a translation of the electronic memories. But
these are merely manifestations of the prayer, they are not the prayer
itself. Encodement or enfoldment is this work's most typical state. I would
suggest many digital works exist typically in a state of latency, and when
they are visible to us this is a rare case of unfoldment.
Quantum indexicality, or, subatomic mimesis
The example of Beghin's work emphasizes
the distinction between the role of the electron and the role of the
code in electronic imaging. The former is physical, but the latter has
an aspect that is purely virtual, because it approximates physical reality
into symbolic information.
Note, however, that not all computers are digital in the usual
sense. Quantum computers, which are now being developed theoretically,
would use a minimum number of electrons, instead of the millions herded
into formations of 1 and 0 by digital computers. Quantum computers would
work with the superposition of the discrete states, such as orbit or polarization,
of single particles. Thus, they could make calculations based on the controlled
excitation of ions in an ion trap. They could also use nuclear magnetic
resonance (NMR) to detect the nuclear spin of atoms in small organic molecules.
In quantum computers the role of particular particles matters very much.
If digital computers are like herders of sheep, quantum computers are like
flea circuses: they rally a very few, very tiny actors whose individual
behavior, though somewhat limited,
makes a perceptible difference in the whole.
It is my indexical fantasy to witness an
image produced by a quantum computer, perhaps an animated image
produced from the varying combinations of two or four electrons in
varying states of excitement. Such an image would not be a simulacrum
or a mathematical model, but the index of a physical referent, the
tiny dance of subatomic particles. Nanotechnology is already producing
such quantum objects, such as the "quantum corral" produced at IBM's
Almaden Research Center. A scanning tunneling microscope induces 48 iron
atoms to share their outer-valence electrons in a standing wave, producing
a sunflower-shaped mandala 14 nanometers across.
Finally let me suggest that, since subatomic
particles are connected by mutual physical bonds, it is possible
to speak of electronic mimesis. Mimesis, according to Frankfurt
School theorists Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno,
is a form of representation that is mediated physically rather than
The mimetic faculty is usually superseded by symbolic means of
representation in modern society (we are more likely to represent an
airplane with a word or a drawing than by zooming around with our arms
outstretched). Nevertheless, mimetic representation still at least partially
underlies abstract representational systems, such as language. Similarly,
the physical interrelationships between subatomic particles underlie
the symbolic transmission of digital information.
I have argued that in the analog electronic
image, because of the enfolded wave-particle relationship, a strongly
indexical or mimetic relationship is maintained between object and
image through all stages of recording, transmission, and reception.
Moreover, even the digital image remains a physical object. Although
it no longer bears an analog relationship to its initial object, the
digital image relies for its existence on the fundamental interconnectedness
of subatomic particles. Electronic images, like all of us, owe their
material being to electrons and their associated wave forms. We are
physically implicated in the virtual realms we inhabit, and far from
divorcing ourselves from the world when we enter electronic spaces, we
may be more connected than we imagine.
Postscript: Analog leaks from digital streams
I do not wish to end this materialist essay on such an idealistic note,
given that the technologies in which I have traced the marvelous interconnected
life of electrons have been largely developed for military and commercial
applications that enslave as well as liberate. At a time when all of space
and all objects of vision are claimed as corporate property, we must note
that certain encodings are occurring at practically the subatomic level.
Nanotechnology is being developed as an applied science by military and biotech
companies, and some of their first experiments have been to sculpt atoms into
The first applications of quantum computing will likely be bank security
We look to the subatomic level for evidence of a new uncharted territory
or a new sublime only at the risk of ignoring how all that is perceivable
may be or has already been encoded as a proprietary interest. The electrons
can play all they want, but we aggregates may find ourselves seduced by the
apparent immateriality of electronic media.
In this cautionary tone I adopt Sean Cubitt’s notion of digital
which emphasizes the materiality and vulnerability of the medium. A digital
aesthetics remembers that any technology is social, and looks for the social
and utopian potential of technologies. To pursue the radical materialism
of my argument above, I want to suggest that the interconnected universe of
electrons offers more than just a metaphor for social interconnection.
The materiality of electronic media is most
often evident to us not when everything is running smoothly but
durin the breakdowns and failures, the anomalies of low and obsolete
technologies, and the ways electronic media are actually used as
opposed to how they are imagined in the software manuals. A well-running
platform, for those who can afford such a thing, has a false transparency
that makes it quite easily to believe we are operating in a virtual
When, due to low bandwidth or small hard
drives or lack of fancy plug-ins or lost phone links, our digital
media "fail" us, they are closest to reminding us of the physicality
of the electronic medium. When a digital operation fails at the machine
(as opposed to programming) level, it is usually because its switches,
rather than falling nicely into the on/off positions, register a "maybe."
That "maybe" is the product of electrons that abandon their regimented
paths, attracted to impurities in the silicon like workers to a bar.
This produces dire results for networked computers and guided missiles,
of course. But the noise of a failed internet connection, for example,
is a declaration of electronic independence. It grabs us back from virtual
space and reminds us of the physicality of our machines. They remind
us not only of the wave-hugging electrons that interconnect all matter,
organic and nonorganic, but also of our connections with other humans
and our shared less-than-perfect, less-than-virtual circumstances.
This paper was developed through many head-spinning conversations,
involving fevered drawing of diagrams on napkins and laptop-tapping telephone
calls, with my father, neuroscientist and amateur physicist Bill Marks. I
also thank computer scientist and amateur physicist Gilles Brassard, who
helped me take my quantum foot out of my classical mouth. Any errors are mine!
Finally, I am most grateful to Grahame Weinbren, thanks to whose demanding
editing this essay expanded exponentially.
Laura U. Marks, a writer and programmer of independent media,
is assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University, Ottawa.