– Spring/Summer 2005

People on a Sunday, Octopus on a Tuesday

Mark Lewis

Imagine looking at some images of a crowded Coney Island beach taken from a satellite or a high-flying plane. The images would feature thousands of people at play and rest on a hot Sunday afternoon in August, images of people devoting themselves to the pursuit of nothing in particular. An accumulation of bodies temporarily going nowhere, some arriving and others leaving, they come for nothing in particular and leave nothing really behind.

Would we be surprised to learn that when a group of mathematicians were invited to look at a version of these images, where all activity had been reduced to vectors of movement and rest, that even with the aid of intensive computer analysis, they did not know how to read them. Not only were they unable to find any identifiable pattern in the activities depicted, they also had no idea what the moving and resting icons represented. So this experiment, as reported in The New York Times a year or two ago, drew the conclusion that when human beings relax and play there is nothing particularly revealing about their behaviour, nothing that can unequivocally betray their species. It's all random and inchoate, and could mean absolutely anything. Or could it?

While I have no idea what material form the original images of this Sunday afternoon on Coney Island Beach took (prior to the images' reduction to vectors), I did wonder if this was important in the consideration of the experiment's final results. Would it have made any difference, for instance, if the original images had been photographs of instants in time, or a film of a period of time (perhaps the whole day), or