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Orthographic media

Working on a video game, I’ve 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, in which 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


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