Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Gamma Curve of Politics

As I've mentioned before, I'm a huge fan of Neil Stephenson. Aside from absolutely wonderful writing and imagery, he is able to see and communicate broad trends and forces better than almost any other writer I've read.

A recent post by Cory Doctorow reminded me that I had not read one of his earliest books from 1994, Interface (co-authored with his uncle, and published under the pseudonym Stephen Bury).

Interface is the story of how a cabal known as the Network works to buy the presidency by hacking the brain of a popular politican that has had a stroke.

As with all Stephenson books, there are many many moments of sheer genius, and given that it was written in 1994, remarkable (and uncomfortable) prescience.

An example is the exchange early in the book between Cy Ogle, a political media consultant, and Aaron Green, an engineer that has invented an "emotional detector" that can monitor the emotional response of the person that is wearing it.

"...Have you ever been on TV, Aaron?"

"Just incidentally."

"How did you think you looked?"

"Not very good. Actually, I was kind of shocked by how strange I looked."

"Your eyes looked as if they were bulging out of your head, did they not?

"Exactly, how did you know?"

"The gamma curve of a video camera determines its response to light," Cy Ogle said. "If the curves were straigh, then dim things would look dim and bright things bright, just as they do in reality, and as they do, more or less, on any decent film stock. But because the gamma curve is not a straight line, dim things tend to look muddy and black, while bright things tend to glare and overload, and the only things that look halfway proper are in the middle. [...] the whites of your eyes are intensely bright. If you knew what I know, you would keep them fixed straight ahead in their sockets when you were on television, exposing as little of the white as possible. But because you are not versed in this subject, you swivel your eyes around as you look at different things, and when you do, the white part predominates and it jumps out of the screen because of the gamma curve; your eyes look like bulging white globes set in a muddy dark background."

"Is this the type of thing you teach to politicians?"

"Just a sample," Ogle said.

"Gee, it's really a shame that --"

"That our political system revolves around such trivial matters. Aaron, please do not waste my time and yours by voicing the obvious."


"That's how it is, and how it will be until high-definition television becomes the norm."

"Then what will happen?"

"All the politicians currently in power will be voted out of office and we will have a completely new power structure. Because high-definition television has a flat gamma curve an higher resolution, and people who look good on today's television look bad on HDTV and voters will respond accordingly. Their oversized pores will be visible, the red veins in their noses from drinking too much, the artificiality of their TV-friendly hairdos will make them all look, on HDTV, like country-and-western singers. A new generation of politicians will take over and they will all look like movie stars, because HDTV will be a great deal like film, and movie stars know how to look good on film."

Here we are 14 years later, and the gamma curve of politics is starting to straighten in the HDTV age. A highly recommended (and quick) read during this election season.

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