Orthographic media

Working on various projects over the years, I’ve often had reason to tinker with 3D graphics rendered using an ortho­graphic projec­tion.

Most first-person 3D games use a perspec­tive projec­tion, which appears generally “realistic,” with objects shrinking as they become more distant. When virtual scenes are rendered this way, we (as humans, with eyeballs) can use our visual intu­itions to judge the scale and arrange­ment of objects within them. That’s the case even when a scene is very abstract, like this one:

I could point to any two cubes in the scene above, ask “which one is closer?” and you’d be able to tell me, instantly and confidently.

There’s another kind of projection, called orthographic, often used in 3D appli­ca­tions where you want the view to be diagram­matic rather than dramatic. (It’s very common in strategy games.) In this projec­tion, objects appear the same size regard­less of their distance from the camera. Here’s that same scene — it’s literally the same data structure — rendered ortho­graphically:

I could point to any two cubes in the scene above, ask “which one is closer?” and you’d have to pause to figure it out. It’s not impossible; sometimes one cube occludes another, a clear giveaway. But the point is, it takes effort, and, very often, your guess is wrong. (Trust me, as a person who has struggled to debug a video game rendered this way!)

Why do I bring this up?

Browsing Twitter the other day, I once again found myself sucked into a far-off event that truly does not matter, and it occurred to me that social media is an ortho­graphic camera.

Imagine those colorful cubes in the ortho­graphic projec­tion above as tweets: all the same size, taking up the same amount of space on the canvas, even though some are way off in the distance while others brush the virtual camera’s lens. Maybe this is a flavor of context collapse: the stan­dard­iza­tion of all events, no matter how big or small, delightful or traumatic, to fit the same mashed-together timeline.

Before elec­tronic media, news was atten­u­ated by the friction and delay of trans­mis­sion and reproduction. When it arrived on your doorstep, a report of a far-off event had an “amplitude” that helped you judge whether or not it mattered to you and/or the world.

That’s not the case with social media, where even tiny, distant events are repro­duced “at full size” on your screen. This has been true of elec­tronic media for a long time — I’m thinking of all the local TV news broad­casts that have opened with the day’s grisliest murder — but/and there was, before social media, at least an argument that it was important to have good “news judgment” if you were respon­sible for putting events on screens, partic­u­larly at the highest levels.

Indeed, working out the relative impor­tance of events was, and is, a big part of what newsrooms do. The front page of a print newspaper was, and is, the tangible result: its allo­ca­tion of paper and ink to different stories a direct and costly indi­ca­tion of their relative weight.

Two thoughts, then.

First, what would it look like for a social media platform to re-establish perspec­tive? To attenuate the strength of signals over distance — not geographic distance, necessarily, but other kinds? (This is obviously related to my broad interest in adding more negative feedback to these platforms.)

Second, in the absence of any such attenuation, I think a practical and healthy thing that any user of social media can do when confronted with a free-floating cube of news is ask: how big is this, really? Does it matter to me and my community? Does it, in fact, matter anywhere except the partic­ular place it happened? Sometimes, the answer is absolutely yes, but not always — and these platform don’t make it easy to judge.

P.S. Note that ortho­graphic projec­tion has its uses — and can be very beautiful!

August 2020, Berkeley