There comes a time when we need to stop the edit­ing process and en­joy what we have cre­ated

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When you’ve cre­ated some­thing beau­ti­ful, stop.

You’re prob­a­bly fa­mil­iar with the ex­pres­sion “beauty is in the eye of the be­holder”, but what do you think it means? The ob­vi­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tion is rel­a­tivist: what I find beau­ti­ful need not be what you find beau­ti­ful. But we could also take it lit­er­ally, namely that beauty is prop­erty of, or a process within, the hu­man eye (or visual cor­tex, or brain) rather than a prop­erty of ex­ter­nal ob­jects.

My two main “hob­bies”, reg­u­larly chron­i­cled in this col­umn, are fid­dling with pho­to­graphs in Pho­to­shop El­e­ments 5 and com­pos­ing al­go­rith­mic mu­sic us­ing my own soft­ware re­cently rewrit­ten in Python. What th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties have in com­mon is firstly that they are both pur­sued on a com­puter, and se­condly that they are both it­er­a­tive in na­ture: I make a change, look at it or lis­ten to it, de­cide whether it’s for the bet­ter or the worse, ac­cept or re­ject it, then make an­other, and so on un­til I’m suf­fi­ciently sat­is­fied to stop and call it a fin­ished “work”.

You may have spot­ted that this is the very same process prac­tised by artists of all eras, on all ma­te­ri­als and in all styles – with one ex­cep­tion made pos­si­ble by the com­puter and the dig­i­tal na­ture of its ma­te­rial. That ex­cep­tion is that in most real-world ma­te­ri­als, the step changes are ir­re­versible. That’s most clearly true for a sculp­tor who chis­els off chips of mar­ble that can’t be re­placed, but par­tially so for an oil painter who ap­plies daubs that can’t be re­moved, only over­painted, or a wa­ter­colourist who lacks even that op­tion. Writ­ers, be­fore the ad­vent of word pro­cess­ing, had re­course to cross­ing-out, the In­dia rub­ber, Tipp-Ex or the wastepa­per bas­ket. None of that mat­ters so much as does the end point of the process, know­ing when to stop, and in this the com­puter hin­ders rather than helps.

The tempt­ing Undo icon means I could go on fid­dling with the same piece un­til death, or the heat-death of the uni­verse (which­ever comes first). There is a de­fence against such fid­dling, though, and that’s the num­ber of pa­ram­e­ters in­volved. When pro­cess­ing a photo, I have avail­able 120+ fil­ters, 23 blend modes and 20 other ad­just­ments that, when ap­plied even to just two lay­ers, make for three bil­lion pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions per it­er­a­tion, and I make dozens of it­er­a­tions. Doc­u­ment­ing the pa­ram­e­ters, to make them re­pro­ducible, would be te­dious, but in any case I don’t want to. I’m happy to play on the same field as Michelan­gelo and Beethoven, even if my game is far less im­pres­sive.

Play­ing on the same field is an­other way of say­ing that it’s our eyes, ears, arms, legs, brains that de­cide when to stop, the de­ci­sion that cre­ates what we call beauty. This abil­ity to know when to stop may have been hard-wired into our brains by evo­lu­tion. An­i­mal brains con­tain many pat­tern analysing cir­cuits, some im­parted by evo­lu­tion, some fur­ther trained by early ex­pe­ri­ence. On the evo­lu­tion­ary side, it’s been sug­gested that colour vi­sion of­fered a di­etary ad­van­tage in distin­guish­ing ripe from un­ripe fruit. It’s also deeply in­volved in sex­ual dis­play, and hence se­lec­tion, par­tic­u­larly among birds and in­sects.

Pablo Pi­casso’s free­hand squig­gles al­ways look bet­ter than mine, and I sus­pect that’s a mat­ter of radii of cur­va­ture: some curves are right and some are wrong (too acute, jerky). Some curves are just sex­ier than oth­ers, and I’ll leave the evo­lu­tion­ary “ex­pla­na­tion” to you. We could an­a­lyse this math­e­mat­i­cally us­ing line in­te­grals, div, grad and curl, but that would be point­less. Our pat­tern cir­cuits are con­nected to our lim­bic sys­tem – the source of our emo­tions and thus of dopamine re­ward. No amount of maths can sub­sti­tute for feel­ing good about what you see.

An­other pos­si­ble evo­lu­tion­ary ad­van­tage of curve sens­ing is for land­scape recog­ni­tion. I used to spend time in a small croft near the sea in north­ern Scot­land, where the sea­ward skyscape was dom­i­nated by seven dis­tinc­tive humps of hills that we, of course, called the Seven Sis­ters. I can still imag­ine that shape if I close my eyes, lead­ing me to hy­poth­e­sise that this abil­ity to recog­nise land­scape may have had great sur­vival ad­van­tage in the epochs be­fore roads, church steeples or GPS. To zealots of strong AI, I’ll just say this: we might an­a­lyse all such sen­sual recog­ni­tions and turn them into al­go­rithms, but so far there’s no way that a com­puter can feel good, and with­out that it can’t have any real un­der­stand­ing of what beauty is.

The tempt­ing Undo icon means I could go on fid­dling with the same piece un­til death, or the heat-death of the uni­verse

Dick Pountain is editorial fel­low of PC Pro. He knows when to start and when to stop, but the bit in be­tween is of non­de­ter­min­is­tic du­ra­tion.

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