So, what are we calling the thing this entire newsletter is about?
2,500 YEARS AGO, ZEUXIS the painter depicted grapes so realistically that birds would swoop down to peck at his art. He died, allegedly, laughing at one of his own pictures. Two millennia later, Renaissance painters had to relearn every lost technique for depicting the physical world. You can trace their progress through the grapes in their still lifes. In paintings from the 17th century, it’s the grapes that stand out; translucent, plump, glowing with ambient light. In the best still lifes, the viewer can even make out that barely-there dusting of natural yeast.
I recently learned that this thin powder has a name; It’s called ‘bloom.’ What a bold testament to human ingenuity: something painted four centuries ago can provide such faithful visual information that I actually learned a new word about the physical world.
WE’RE LIVING IN A new taxonomic age, one bursting with new words to describe every part of the visual world. Today, the naming of things is exponentially more complex than it was in the past, being part of the rush to simulate all of reality in three-dimensional, photorealistic CGI. This rush has bred new terms like ‘ambient occlusion’ (the way light shows through hair), and ‘subsurface scattering’ (the way light glows through skin—or grapes). Humans have named all the types and grades of motion blur and figured out how light bounces off every object we see. Renaissance painters would have trembled to ponder the amount of toil and research required to make even fictional creatures read like actual breathing beings that belong to the same universe as us, the viewer.
It seems appropriate that many of this era’s new words are proprietary. In 1994, The Mask pioneered ‘smearing,’ a way to incorporate human perception of fast motions into the film’s Tex Avery-style cartoon physics. Two years later, director Peter Jackson overcame the impossible casting demands of The Lord of the Rings with a program called Massive, which, for the first time, automated colossal crowd scenes, sometimes involving tens of thousands of characters. Pixar makes new words with every movie. In Monsters, Inc. it was ‘Fizt,’ software capable of depicting hair and fur. Finding Nemo created ‘Transblurrency,’ allowing depictions of organic membranes (like jellyfish). The Incredibles required the creation of ‘Goo,’ allowing animators to correctly portray the poetry of muscles and tendons under skin. In Cars 2, it was ‘Tessendorf,’ which depicted waves crashing far out at sea.
Each of these words later graduated to live-action movies. The innovations of filmic CGI, especially those made and used in the service of corporate entertainment franchises, may seem of little consequence to civilization. But each of these words represents a unique step in the race to simulate everything. Technically, these are terms of a new physics, one no less real just because it is used to depict the nonreal (a lamp in a video game, after all, still uses electricity). In 2007’s Ratatouille, Pixar debuted ‘Gummy,’ a bespoke lighting software that transformed CGI food—normally waxy, hard, or plastic—into something as appetizing as real food. The film’s grapes look as inviting as any real grape on any real craft services table on the set of any live-action movie being filmed here, in reality.
ALL THESE NEW WORDS, and yet there’s none for this thing that is almost upon us. The history of cinema is littered with obsolete terms for each stumbling, fumbling step toward the dream of motion pictures: ‘bioscop,’ ‘stereophoroskop,’ ‘kinematograph,’ ‘zoetrope.’ But as of this writing, we have only one clumsy placeholder for our century’s new technology: ‘deepfake.’ The word ‘deep’ in deepfake came from ‘deep learning’—a type of computing that, to many (like me) is a black box—but which seems to imply the depth of labor involved in making one person look like another. A ‘deepfake’ that could be made instantly, with voice prompts, to flawless and limitless effect, wouldn’t really be a deepfake. That word is doomed to antiquity.
So, what’s the right term for content that can be manipulated or altered in real-time, on demand, with no more effort than it takes to dictate a text message? What adjective would you even use? ‘Malleable’ is a clumsy word, four syllables that stumble over each other halfway through. ‘Moldable’ isn’t much better, and it has the extra weight of suggesting rot instead of malleability. ‘Supple’ is icky, and ‘ductile’ feels like an industry term. ‘Pliant’ seems to be getting warmer, at least in that it suggests plasticity (when Tom Hanks was shown the very first proof of concept footage for Toy Story, his frame of reference was plasticine, the colorful modeling clay).
In 2016, Talos Press published my second novel, Exploded View, which deals with all this mess from the vantage point of 27 years in the future (38 years when I wrote it). The phrase I used in the book, ‘soft content,’ appealed to me because of its simplicity, low syllable count, and vowel rhyme. This last reason feels important. Assonant phrases have staying power. Think of DropBox, Froot Loops, Rolls-Royce, or YouTube. Good rappers use assonance. Bad rappers don’t.
Thus, I’ll be using ‘soft content’ in this newsletter. I’ll define it as: Any electronic material or communication that can be altered, forged, or manipulated in real time.
HAND ON MY HEART, I’m not trying to coin a phrase. You would have every right to find such a bold play slightly pathetic. I’ll switch to the correct term as soon as it exists. But seriously folks, tick tock. We have to call this thing something.
Remember: all words are made up and thus can sound stupid when examined. I remember slightly wincing when reading, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, of the ‘feelies,’ the logical sci-fi successor to cinema. But is ‘movies’ any more of a dignified word? When ‘movie’ gained currency over ‘photoplay’ in the 1910s, surely someone somewhere winced at how stupid the modern world was becoming—a feeling we can all relate to today.