2015-12-01

Backtracking signs


This image has been for some years now my avatar on various places on the Web. I've chosen it obviously because it's a nice image taken in my dear mountains, but also as an illustration of what Quine called the inscrutability of reference.
This image is a sign, elle nous fait signe. To each of you, depending on your experience and culture, it will evoke something different and particular  - or nothing at all. But does it only evoke, or does it represent something? Could a machine figure what it is? I would be curious to submit this image to some automatic description algorithm. Would we get something like tracks in the snow in a winter mountain landscape? That would not be bad. If it succeeds in adding several people wearing snowshoes, I would be most impressed. And I would be really baffled if it could guess how many people have passed, and in which direction.

Now let's take it as a support for an exercise in backtracking. Let's move a few steps towards the genesis of this image, trying to figure out its deeper meaning. Someone shot this image on a fair winter day (supposing it's a genuine photograph and not one of those fancy computer-generated graphics). In either case what you are viewing here and now is just a reconstruction on the screen of your device of a pack of bits, a file uploaded to Google servers from my computer, this local file being itself a resized and trimmed copy of an original one generated by a numeric camera. Several copies, deconstructions and reconstructions happened since the original shot.
Now just trust me it's a "genuine" photograph of some "real" landscape, and imagine yourself back at the scene, along with the photographer. Given the point of view, he's certainly on the tracks himself. Does he follow the tracks let by another group of walkers? Does he belong to this group? Is he looking back at its own tracks? Has he followed the same track way up and down, and the several people who seem to have passed here were actually the same person, once walking up and once down, or maybe several times up and down? Whatever. Who could answer those questions now, except the one who shot the image? Days, months, seasons and years have passed since. Later on the same day other walkers have come following the tracks or crossing them and messing the signs. A few days after a new snow fall has erased them all, and in April the winter memories have vanished in the streams joyfully cascading down. And another summer, and another winter. Going back there now won't tell you anything about those tracks, even if the landscape looks quite the same, even if some walker has taken today the same path, letting similar tracks.

But figuring the genesis of the image itself is not the end of the backtracking. I've chosen this image to represent me on the Web, among thousands of possible images. How can you interpret this choice? Is it a track of mine, captured by someone else, a track of someone else taken by me, my own track taken by myself, a far-fetched form of selfie? Maybe nothing of the sort. Maybe I found this image somewhere on the Web and thought it looked like me, someone who walks, and is often no more where you expected to meet him.

I could answer all those questions, but I won't. I'd rather imagine you wondering as you would wonder, hopefully, finding some perfect pebble stone on the seashore, about the long story it silently tells, the slow cooking of rock in the depth of Earth and its upraising over millions of years, the sudden earthquake or storm or the patient bite of ice cracking the rock, the fall off the cliff, the long rolling travel downstream to the sea, the patient work of currents, tides and waves until this unique morning where its glow on the sand have captured your eyes.

Think about it, just every thing is somehow akin to this image of a track or that pebble stone. Telling stories, giving time its depth by linking us to the past as so many threads. Trees and rocks, bowls, clothes, jewels, printed words and texts. And every so-called Web resource. They are not just sitting idly here and now, but are signs worth backtracking.