We're all going dotty

Look at all the ways we're dissolving into dots, or points, or grains of some sort nowadays. We're surrounded by megapixels, high-resolution photos, and high-definition TV. All these technologies are attempts to reproduce reality by dissolving it into dots - and the more dots they have, the more faithful the reproduction. This "dottiness" is proving a rich source of metaphor.

The other day I was reflecting on a series of e-mail exchanges I'd had with a friend on how I'd recognized her "voice" in an unsigned article she'd written. She'd used a particular construction in the piece that I could remember her using before - about a dozen years ago, I realized. Hmm, I mused, you may be picking up on this because you get into these issues at a pretty high level of detail - high resolution, you might say. Or is this what people mean by getting "granular"?

Dictionaries define "granular" as, for instance, "consisting of or appearing to consist of granules; grainy" or even "the quality of being composed of relatively large particles" - in other words, coarse grain. But the word is being used currently to refer to a fine grain - many dots per inch, more nuance and detail. Thus stock picker Jim Cramer blasts Google for underpromising on financial results to be able to overdeliver at the end of the day: "They should just let the numbers tell the story like Warren Buffett does, and not give us all this granularity." Too much detail - too many grains of fine sand? - can clog the works, evidently.

If granularity, rooted in the idea of little grains, or seeds, has morphed in meaning from (relatively) big dots to smaller ones, another "dotty" phenomenon is going in the other direction: pixels. These sprightly (spritely?) sounding picture elements are the digital successors to Frederick Ives's analog halftone dots. In 1890, Ives (of Currier & Ives fame) invented the halftone process, which involved essentially reducing the image to a series of dots.

This invention let newspapers convey shades of gray in a way that hadn't been possible before - and daily life, as chronicled by newspapers, is full of shades of gray.

The photographic sense of "resolution" has long since been extended to other visual displays - computer screens, television sets, cameras, PDAs, cellphones. Up to a point, the more pixels, the better the picture, as anyone who has ever shopped for a digital camera knows. But sometimes news organizations need pictures to be digitally blurred - to have bigger pixels, in other words - as in the case of the Abu Ghraib prison photos, shocking enough without individually recognizable detail. Such images are known as "pixelated."

Of course there's a much older word "pixilated," meaning eccentric or whimsical, or bewildered; both meanings are attributed to a notion of someone who has been covered with pixie dust - we've wandered far from the realm of science and technology here. But another word for "pixilated" is "dotty," so maybe we haven't wandered off topic after all.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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