The Digital and the Infinite

The traditional mind rebels against Calvino's computational inspiration. However, digital technology seems to reinforce his ideas. The Infinite has no place in the digital world.

The images above are 165 pixels tall, and 125 pixels wide. Each pixel has been randomly assigned a value of either black or white, and the resulting random images appear as static. However, this method will eventually produce every possible picture of this size.

There are 2^2065 possible pictures that will result, and not a single one more. Such sparsity of content seems impossible and disquieting. It seems as if there should be infinite possibilities, but there are not. One of the possible pictures is of the capital of the United States. Another is of your mother. Another is of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One is an accurate portrait of Cleopatra. Many more are falsifications of the one true portrait of Cleopatra.

The human mind can conceive of images seemingly without end. But if all these images were digitized, there would only be finitely many.

Such large numbers as 2^2065 gain a logic of their own—numbers so large that the distinction between finite and infinite is no longer meaningful. If a person had a small enough paintbrush, and he were to paint one of these pictures on the side of every proton and neutron in the universe, he would run out of particles far before he ran out of images.

img: 8 statics, Jacob Barrett, 2003