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It might have been a fleck of dust on the tiny lens of a phone’s camera and no-one noticed when it began. And with so few older photos ever revisited, their missing pixels were only discovered—if at all—after the problem became known. A pixel is just a pixel and most electronic images have millions of them.

It seemed they would last forever but the problem began much earlier than even the experts would ever realise. For some time, the peak was masked by the huge turnover of pixels, bouncing around the electronic world. Whenever a memory device was destroyed or otherwise stopped working, another wave of pixels was released for re-consumption by the unsuspecting population.

It was the golden age of imaging. Image was everything and everywhere.

But slowly the missing pixels—or “mixels”—became more common. An occasional eagle-eyed graphic designer re-touching an image in some ultra-zoomed format might have noticed but that was the purpose of re-touching and the mixel was quickly replaced, unwittingly drawing from elsewhere in the world of e-imaging.

But the world clicked on, mostly with the simulated shutter click of digital photography in its various forms. With the ever-growing megapixel capacity of even the smallest and cheapest cameras and other devices, we took larger and larger bites of pixels with every click. And with more devices and more clicks every day, mixelation grew quietly but quickly. The pixel crunch was coming.

Questions were asked by some observers, particularly in the professional graphic design community, when mixels began to be noticed in clumps. Of course, in those days, many people were amateur graphic designers, rearranging their collected pixels on all manner of devices. But the professional designers began to see the threat to their work and their industry, particularly when they noticed mixels appearing—or pixels disappearing—from their older work. Not only were occasional mixels found in new images, the pixel integrity of earlier work was beginning to break down.

The first voices were quickly hushed. Why should we be running out of pixels? How could our use of pixels be interconnected? And who were these self-interested designers to tell the rest of us how to use pixels? The digital revolution had placed photography and design in reach of everyone. Taking our own high-quality photographs, snapping endless streams of personal events and friends, recording news events near us on handheld devices, posting grainy photos of our favourite band or what we had for lunch, we could post, publish, broadcast and photoshop our lives to the world—and pixels were our raw material. Pixels were our right.

But mixelation threatened to undo all that. As the mixels grew and began appearing increasingly on prominent and commercial images, the industry concern could not be ignored. Governments began to talk. Studies were commissioned by concerned groups. Manufacturers of digital cameras and devices did their own analysis. Meanwhile, the mixelation grew as pixel use continued unabated. From electronic billboards in Times Square to home computer screens, electronic scoreboards to handheld phone touchscreens, automatic teller machines to personal photo libraries, the suddenly empty pixel spaces were tiny leprous spots that threatened to continue to eat away at the images in which they had taken hold.

The public outcry grew. Social media campaigners re-posted, shared and linked images of the images most affected, unwittingly—at least, at first—exacerbating the problem. Newspapers and talkback radio—media not directly affected by mixelation—demanded answers to the emerging crisis, while quietly hoping this might be their rescue.

The research, reports, inquiries and commissions all arrived at the same conclusion: somehow there were only so many pixels in the world—different research offered vastly varying estimates—and once that peak was reached any further pixel use would borrow from already-existing images, leaving a mixel in the new image when insufficient pixels could be obtained and also creating a mixel when in the original image when a pixel or group of pixels were appropriated by the creation of a new image.

For example, whenever anyone took a digital photo the pixels had to be sourced from somewhere in the world’s collective pixels. Most often this would happen by grabbing pixels from other images anywhere in the world—although researchers hypothesised that there must be some formula to where such pixels would be taken from—leaving an often-undetectable mixel in millions of images around the world. But when this happened too many times, the original image would be progressively undermined, with new images constantly borrowing from older images and increasingly from each other.

With recognition that pixels are a finite resource—at least by most experts and scientists—came the many suggestions for addressing what was an escalating crisis. Proposals included governmental pixel regulation, pixel rationing, pixel trading and camera licensing, as well as mixel quarantining and other image stability measures for those images considered vital for public purposes. The public debate dragged on. Pixels kept disappearing as they were re-used—some carefully, some carelessly.

Then—and like the problem itself, no-one was ever quite sure how it began—something changed. Perhaps an ordinary customer walked into a suburban electronics store and had the audacity to ask for a phone without a camera. Perhaps someone else pulled their phone from their pocket, only to decide not to take that photo after all. Somewhere on the other side of the world, in a sweatshop in which shiny new phones were made, a single employee began leaving out the camera mechanism. It was an act of radical defiance—that was never noticed because, by the time these phones were shipped and delivered, no-one wanted or used the cameras any more.

Like ripples spreading across a pond—but without government regulation, celebrity endorsement or media grandstanding, barely raising a ripple—photography again became a precious act, producing treasured images. As so many of the captured pixels fell into their inevitable disuse, the shortage passed. In time, repairs were made to iconic and valued images. To ensure careful pixel usage, professional and amateur photographers alike obtained pixel credits for pixels recycled.

And the real change had nothing to do with photography, pixels or mixels. Instead, there came the freedom not to photograph or record every experience of life. Slowly, life again became something lived, rather than snapped, captured, posted, updated or “liked.”

And in a less image-saturated world, the photos that we were then taken meant so much more.  Families and groups of friends would get together to share their few carefully-taken photos. A family portrait was an occasion and an image to be proud of. Publishers, broadcasters and advertisers used images sparingly, keeping in mind their corporate pixel responsibility. The greatest impact came not with ubiquity and superfluity but with craft and precision. It was a new and more truly golden age of imaging.

—This marks twelve months of stories with Nathan Brown. Previous works include: “The Wanderer” and “At Human Speed.” See all his stories here

Image: Andreas Gursky, untitled xvi, 2008.

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