Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 10 (October 2001)

The Really Big Picture

Those of us who tend to focus on minute details are often surprised by how different something looks when seen from a broader perspective. This was certainly the case for me at the recent Siggraph conference in Los Angeles. My initial reaction, and one shared by many people I spoke to, was that the pace of innovation in computer graphics seemed slower, and that the technologies, products, and applications on display seemed unfocused compared to previous years. But when I considered this in the context of the keynote address—titled “The Big Picture”—by technologist Danny Hillis, the new developments took on a much greater significance.

Hillis's message was that although we are right in the middle of an era of astonishing creativity-when technology and civilization are undergoing phenomenal change-it's hard to see this from our usual vantage point. We must instead look at this period in the context of evolution as a whole and understand how similar transformations have occurred over time whenever living things have changed the way they process information-which is a very big picture indeed. Here's a summary of his unique point of view:

The story begins several billion years ago, when the earth was a steaming rock, and the single-celled organisms that existed at the time learned a remarkable trick. Instead of relying simply on their own cell-division processes to multiply, they took the recipe for reproduction, standardized it, and stored it in a separate information-handling system-which we call DNA-that all forms of life could share. After that, organisms evolved as multi-cellular creatures, and life became so successful that it completely changed the face of the earth.

The next great evolutionary leap took place about 100 million years ago, when living things began to develop special mechanisms, or nervous systems, for acquiring and processing information. With these, it was possible for organisms to evolve by changing their behavior, rather than their physical structure. (For example, a fish could move onto land just by changing the way it used its fins.) And what followed was an explosion in the diversity and complexity of life, as creatures developed eyes and antennas and tongues and brains as well as arms and legs that allowed them to move into whole new niches.

The next turning point occurred a few million years ago, when a clever group of apes came up with the notion of expressing the ideas in their minds as words. For the first time, they created a system of information processing that existed outside of themselves, which meant they no longer had to relearn everything from the beginning, but instead could benefit from transmitting information to each other. The addendum to this, which happened only a few thousand years ago, was that humans learned to write down information so knowledge could accumulate more readily over generations, thus marking the beginning of modern civilization.

Today, we're in another one of these magical moments because we've developed yet another new system for information processing. We are putting our thoughts and ideas into computers and using computer graphics to help us see the world in new ways. In turn, this has sparked another explosion in creativity that is leading us to once again completely change the face of the earth and ourselves.

From this perspective, it's clear that the innovations introduced at Siggraph-which you'll read about in these pages over the next couple of months-have tremendous importance. The next time you hear people say the industry has lost momentum and purpose, remind them to look at the bigger picture.