In Praise of Dinosaurs

Dinosaur VisionYesterday my colloquium students worked in teams on their research projects.  While “Team Ungulate” discussed the similarities and differences of reindeer, horse and donkey evolution, “Team Fowl” (ultimately dedicated to the chicken and the pigeon) became immersed in the miracles of dinosaur vision.  Like other reptiles, dinosaurs saw the world in technicolor, and many of them had full binocular vision that could capture minute details in a landscape a mile away.  We might assume that extinction was a just desert for a life form that proved unable to adapt to climate change, but I was struck by how central vision — or at least the visual imaginary — was to Augmenting Human Intellect and the Memex.  Douglas Englebart and Vannevar Bush both sought to capture, store and extend (augment) associative trails of information that humans use to order, synthesize, and create knowledge.  As Englebart’s initial vision of the word processor suggests, the apparent “magic” of  the CRT is its ability to replicate both the shape and speed of what we “see” in our “mind’s eye,” and to quickly summon the associative trails we stash in its remote corners.


The modes of augmenting human intellect that have emerged from these mid-20th century visions have revolutionized our ways of knowing, modes of being, and social interactions in miraculous and often disturbing ways.  Yet their initial inspiration and enduring touchstone is the kind of symbolic reasoning intimately bound up with visual perception and the organization of space.  Dinosaurs, with their eagle eyes, may have been way ahead of their time:

“Dinosaur eyes take in a wider view, bending in at the edges like a glass globe filled with water. Nothing is gray or drab or dull; rather they see swimming particles of color, a moving mosaic of dancing colored specks. As we would see a starscape in the night sky, they see a sparkling “lifescape” in the woods by day, a world teeming with life.

Some humans see with dinosaur vision, Bix explained: artists, poets, and children. But for the rest of us, as we grow older, the mammalian part of the brain clouds over the reptilian part, and drains away a little glory of the world.” –James Gurney, “Dinotopia”