The Glint

What is the elusive gleam reflecting off so many surfaces in so many ads really selling?

Full-text audio version of this essay.

If you’ve purchased a new phone or TV in the past few years, you may have noticed that night-time viewing has caused your eyes a bit more strain. That’s because many new displays are equipped to produce, in one flavor or another, a “high dynamic range” image — HDR, for short. A fundamentally relative and fuzzy term, HDR purports to produce brighter whites and inkier blacks than have previous display technologies. The recent iPhone 12 family, for instance, touts a peak brightness of 1,200 nits. (A nit, also known as a candela per square meter, is the standard measure of luminance.) By contrast, a typical laptop display maxes out at anywhere from 400 to 600 nits.

If you are unimpressed with such reports of maximized nits, you may be validating the anxieties of display manufacturers worldwide. These companies — LG, Samsung, and others — engage in a yearly struggle to goad consumers into buying new screens, using gimmicks like 3-D capability, curved displays, and 4K resolution as lures. HDR has become a new rallying cry in the fight to catch consumer’s eyes.

If you are unimpressed with such reports of “maximized nits” of screen luminance, you may be validating the anxieties of display manufacturers worldwide

From a marketing perspective, the problem with these “advancements” has been that they are often difficult to convey without the consumer seeing the difference in person. This is, absurdly, compounded by the fact that “better” screens are advertised on the “worse” screens we already have. The ensuing recourse to technical language, too, breeds its own kind of absurdity: So what that a display has 8 million pixels as opposed to 2 million? Who can, or even wants to, conceptualize what that means in experiential terms? Eventually, the display manufacturers encounter the perceptual limitations of our eyes: The ability to detect differences between screens depends on a broader set of variables than the raw technical prowess of the display. Distance from the screen, its size relative to its resolution, and other factors can dramatically affect our ability to discern any of these supposedly objective upgrades.

Yet despite a lack of generalized desire for these displays, many industry commentators and even consumers would likely agree that their widespread adoption is not a question of if, but when. What maintains this paradox? As a former reporter at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, I’ve watched how companies have developed a strategy to address the problem of consumer demand: the glint. Seemingly little more than an increase in shimmering objects and eye-catching displays, the glint in fact helps us understand the novel ways that computational capitalism tries to calibrate attention and desire.

Early in the lifecycle of HDR, a consensus was apparently reached that glints of light were the most captivating way to display the new technology. For example, at the CES, LG’s enormous screen-encrusted installations — a dome, tunnel, and canyon — spark to life with video of falling sparks, meteoric explosions, raindrops lit against darkened backgrounds, and sunbeams through forest trees, all before fading back to black. By contrasting the screen’s capabilities against these controlled environments, the effect of HDR is dramatically multiplied. At other companies’ booths, the glint of light off a curling strand of honey, vast star-scapes of pinpoint brilliance, and neon city lights caressing the mirror-polished contours of concept cars (which, not coincidently, were physically featured just next door!) have all become standard fare. The glint became a recursive feedback loop: shiny new displays displaying shiny new images of shiny new products that contain shiny new displays.

Start noticing this aesthetic and you’ll see it everywhere. The streaming service Apple TV+ provides a good example of how the glint, as an aesthetic, is incorporated into a media ecology of screens, production equipment, VFX houses, brands, and so on. Loading any show on the service will bring up the Apple TV+ logo, white on a starkly contrasting deep black background. If this contrast alone weren’t powerful enough to seer an after-image of the logo into your retina, than the “+”, which briefly over-illuminates to max out the display’s peek brightness, aims to. With each repetition, the viewer’s eye, Apple hopes, will recognize this logo as punchier than any other.

For most of the shows, too, Apple has produced title sequences that feature all manner of glinting surfaces. For Defending Jacob, a scratched knife slowly rotates in boundless space, a white point light bringing out deliciously contrasting glints across its micro-abraded surface. For Tehran, the camera glides over the contrasting golden and emerald glints of a piece of jewelry. In For All Mankind, a psychedelic sequence of vaguely space-race-inspired images, each glinting wildly, culminates in a blinding starburst swollen with the full splendor of America’s righteous journey beyond the stars.

The glint became a recursive feedback loop: shiny new displays displaying shiny new images of shiny new products that contain shiny new displays

Glints attempt to represent a very particular moment of experience — registering the minimal requirement of a moment as a moment. Something that glints draws our attention only to disappear by the time we’ve focused in. It captures the process of having one’s attention captured, but leaves our conscious attention empty-handed. Here, the glint operates pre-consciously: If to desire is to desire something, the glint instead provides an abstracted representation of the process by which “things” are perceptually constituted in the first place. The glint attempts not just to capture our attention but to direct the pre-conscious conditions of attention itself.

While the glint may have initially been seized upon as a marketing trope, it is becoming a characteristic function of how computational media are experienced. It marks how media do not merely display content but preformat conscious experience, wedging themselves in the murky phase between perceiving and recognizing. That is, the glint’s presumed appeal indicates how marketing is attempting to pre-empt conscious desire by influencing its pre-conscious foundations. Seeing the glint is a sign that the ad content has, in a sense, already happened to us, even though we haven’t registered it. As Mark Hansen asks in Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media, “How can consciousness continue to matter in a world where events no longer need to occur, and, indeed, where they occur long before they manifest as contents of consciousness?”

The philosopher Brian Massumi’s idea of “the missing half second,” found in Parables for the Virtual, may be helpful here. Drawing from neuroscience, he argues that the brain takes a half-second to integrate various sense perceptions from the body — vision, taste, inertia, proprioception, etc. — into what we experience as our situatedness in a present moment. This period of time is “missed,” in Massumi’s view, “not because it is empty, but because it is overfull, in excess of the actually-performed action and of its ascribed meaning.” It is a moment of selection in which perceptual and mental processes cohere into the experience of something actual, something now. Imagine, for instance, the lag between touching a hot pan and reflexively retracting. The experience of realizing the pan is too hot, sensing its heat, and feeling one’s body retract, comes together after the heat of the pan has done its damage. Our conscious and perceptual experience is always lagging slightly behind the interface between our bodies and the world, but the discrepancy is generally so slight that we can ignore it.

Glints, paradoxically, can be seen as a kind of representation of this fundamentally unrepresentable gap. They foreground this lag; we notice them just as slip away. They key us into a portion of the process by which we construct the shell of “a moment” but leave that moment itself almost entirely empty. Instead, the missing half-second, normally obscured, becomes momentarily felt in isolation. This gives glints a temporality of their own, muddling our ordinarily untroubled sense of the present; it appears as a ghostly artifact of a process fast enough to play a role in the constitution of the present and yet is nowhere to be found.

If, on the surface, the glint is an effort to market a certain kind of immediacy in our interaction with consumer technology, attending to its perceptual effects can cue us in to the glint’s political dimension. Its discontinuous temporality resembles what Frederic Jameson, in Signatures of the Visible, calls the “the glossy image,” which he linked to postmodernism and the 20th century expansion of the kinds of images in circulation through a series of new media forms, from photography to film to television. The famous scene in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey of pirouetting spacecraft set to “The Beautiful Blue Danube” can serve as an example: Kubrick’s mastery of the filmic apparatus — particular lenses, lighting, direction, scoring — produces a beautiful image whose “gloss” overcomes a profoundly boring world: a future world locked in lackadaisical political stasis and depthless persons shuttling to and from celestial bureaucratic bases. Such images exemplify Roland Barthes’s definition of connotation, in which “the language and formal categories of the medium are its deepest message, and in which the very quality of the image itself emits a meaning that secretly outdistances the ostensible or immediate purport of its content.” For Jameson, these “glossy” images register the surface appeal of the ostensibly post-historical perpetuity of consumer capitalism, enforcing an endless repetition of the same.

The glint blurs the distinction between the processes of perception and the aims of consumer capitalism, fusing them together in a pre-conscious domain

If gloss emblematized a set of postmodern phenomena (the “waning of affect,” the “end of history,” the triumph of surface over depth, etc.) traveling along the surface of perceptually stable objects (i.e. photographs, films, TV programs), then the glint provides a useful update for computational culture. Like the glossy image, the glint plays two roles: It describes a set of phenomena, such as HDR marketing and the perception of a glinting surface, but it also provides an analytic tool, a way to notice what images, as a formal category, have come to mean.

In analog media, a glint was epiphenomenal, a result of light’s interaction with recording and display devices, as with lens flare. But in digital media, the glint is a manipulable effect, something designed and coded for. To produce glint, code runs behind the scenes at inhuman speed to regulate the luminosity of particular pixels, activate specially produced backlights, and more. As Shane Denson writes in Discorrelated Images, this inhuman image-processing speed is typically “correlated” to human perception, producing the stable images we are accustomed to. The glint, however, which is fast enough to catch attention without allowing it to fix on an object, points to a more profound “discorrelation” in our perceptual encounter with computational media. Because they can be manipulated at inhuman speed, glints can play with that present-constituting half-second. The glint on an HDR screen is a kind of trace — a fleeting register of computation’s capacity to penetrate the formation of experience itself.

Because of this, the glint becomes an emblem of a computational culture in which consumers are not merely marketed to but constructed as: The glint blurs the distinction between the processes of perception and the aims of consumer capitalism, fusing them together in a pre-conscious domain. Here formal categories of “the human” and “the individual” become increasingly troubled, as their perceptual infrastructures become indistinguishable from the infrastructures of capital.

This pre-conscious aspect of what the glint signifies is the most worrisome: How can we critique something that largely escapes, and in fact precedes, notice? One technique is to trace the glint as it travels between perception, desire, marketing, software, hardware, and more. Cyberpunk 2077, a recent video game released by CD Projekt Red, provides a useful example. A standout feature of that game’s marketing was its use of a graphics technique called ray tracing — a relatively new technology to video games but one which has long been used in movies. With ray tracing, the computer simulates vectors of light as they would realistically interact with materials in the scene. Once, this process was incredibly expensive computationally and was limited to pre-rendered scenes, but newer graphics cards have brought ray tracing to real-time video-game environments.

In Cyberpunk 2077, this means that neon street signs cast light realistically off puddles and nearby shops, shadows diffuse accurately depending on their sources, mirrors reflect the world, and so forth. Combined with an HDR-supported monitor, the game’s world sparkles with reflective surfaces and glints of light, sometimes outshining the content of the game itself. To simply experience visual splendor at this new peak of graphical fidelity has been presented as a goal and pleasure in itself.

The glint in Cyberpunk 2077, then, is not simply a lighting effect but an opportunity to relish the sheer quantity of unseen micro-temporal computations, supply chains, research, and labor required to produce it. It is the promise of a consumeristic sublime, a chance to momentarily graze the receding edge of capital’s limited imaginary. The glint in Cyberpunk 2077 is alluring because just as the inertia of these forces is felt, just as it begins to well up into experience, it vanishes.

Gloss, as Jameson construed it, could in principle be rejected. It was a quality of an image that, once theorized, could be held at arm’s length and critiqued. The glint, however, is about its own elusiveness, about its often intentional interference with the formation of conscious experience. It cannot be so easily rejected because it can be felt only as a trace. It is, however, enabled by flows between systems and infrastructures we are accustomed to critiquing. To resist it, the glint must be repeatedly re-described — tracked and triangulated through the traces it leaves behind. In this serial process of re-description, once stable categories such as “the human” and “the individual” necessarily become more and more porous, their own violent histories revealed and, potentially, expunged. The pre-conscious overlap between computation and experience must, after all, be a domain more capacious than the glint’s capitalist co-optation of it. Perhaps in that project there is a glimmer, if not a glint, of hope.

Hank Gerba is a PhD student at Stanford’s Art & Art History department studying computational media, complexity, and aesthetics.