First Click: This French painting from 1884 predicted today’s tech zombies

May 26th, 2015


In preparation for Google I/O later this week I spent Memorial Day reviewing last year’s event. I spotted one of my favorite paintings during the Backdrop demo, a Chromecast feature that turns your TV into a digital picture frame. I hadn’t thought deeply about Georges Seurat’s A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte) in years. What’s remarkable is how prescient the painting remains more than 100 years later.

Seurat's masterpiece addresses working-class relaxation made possible by technology, which, at the time meant the great whirling factories of the industrial revolution. The scene is rendered via a highly systematic and “scientific” technique known as Pointillism, whereby Seurat used tiny dots and dashes of pure color, not unlike the red, green, and blue pixels that combine to display Instagram photos on our smartphones. If you stand too close, all you see are specks of colorful pixels — it’s only with distance that we gain perspective. It’s as if Seurat painted a digital photograph a full century before the first wave of digital cameras would hit retail shelves.

A butterfly flutters just off center as wind, muscle, and steam power the world forward. A hipster knits while another smokes a pipe in repose just like any given Sunday in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Otherwise, the image is static. Everyone appears to be together but alone; each masked in shadow, nobody making eye contact. Most are spending their day of rest in a collective trancelike state. But instead of staring at their smartphones, they’re staring at the factories that would have dotted the far shore of 19th century Paris. Two rusty talons reach into the scene from behind to complete the sense of foreboding. The middle class is "relaxing" but not fully alive in the moment, much like my own inability to step away from work on a holiday weekend.

Two figures have turned their backs on the technological promise found on that distant shore: a musician and a young dancing girl whose face is the only one lit by the sun. At the center of the painting is a small girl dressed in all white, the only person looking outward at the viewer. Her stare is relentless as if to ask, "what does the future hold?"

More of the same, I whisper back, more of the same.

Five stories to start your day

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    Charter Communications is buying Time Warner Cable in a deal that values the latter, larger company at $78.7 billion. The two firms will merge together under the newly created parent company New Charter, which will become the second biggest cable provider in the US after Comcast. A separate acquisition by Charter of the smaller cable company Bright House Networks for $10.4 billion means that the new company will now have 23.9 million customers in 41 states.

  2. A$AP Rocky's second studio album is out now, a week early

    A$AP Rocky apparently lives up to his name. The New York rapper's second album, At.Long.Last.A$AP (A.L.L.A.), is out now, a full week ahead of schedule. Rocky himself tweeted notification of the changed launch, which was bumped from a planned street date of June 2nd to midnight on May 25th.

  3. Jony Ive taking new, more hands-off 'chief design officer' role at Apple

    Apple has revealed that Ive is taking a new role as "chief design officer." Ive tells Fry that he's "still in charge" of the company's industrial design and user interface divisions, but the individual sections will be run by hardware designer Richard Howarth and UI designer Alan Dye, both longtime Apple employees. This change, he says, "frees me up from some of the administrative and management work."

  4. I am Iron Man,' says new Avengers-branded Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge

    In the titanic struggle that threatens to change the face of our planet forever — the smartphone fanboy wars — Tony Stark has chosen a side. Samsung has co-opted Stark's Iron Man mask and color scheme, using both on a new limited edition version of its Galaxy S6 Edge smartphone. The model, which comes as part of a long-running tie-in between Samsung and Marvel for its Avengers movies, also comes with a wireless charging pad made to look like one of Stark's arc reactors.

  5. Google Doodle salutes Sally Ride, the first American woman in space

    Ride was breaking barriers her whole life: working at NASA as a physicist and later becoming an educator, reaching millions of children — especially girls and minority students — to give them the message that they too could have a career in science. Ride died on July 23rd, 2012 from pancreatic cancer, with today's Doodle marking what would have been her 64th birthday.

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