The Most Ancient Form of Compression

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I say that’s a damn good lo-fi compression algorithm. I mean, think about it – you can sometimes save yourself a lot of explaining, and describing by simply scribing some misshapen stick figures on a piece of paper. It’s amazing. In fact my personal theory is that art was invented for that very purpose: data compression.

I imagine it all started back in the day when early men still lived in caves and hunted the big hairy elephant things. So technically they were cavemen but you must remember that they were not retarded. We are talking about homo sapiens here, who had brains the same size we do. They were not neanderthals who go “Me smash rock!”. These folks had the same mental faculties and speech patterns as we do. So they were more like “Excuse me kind sir, but do you mind if I utilize this rock for making fine state of the art stone tools?”. Buy, you know – in like the caveman language.

Around that time I believe Caveman Bob and Caveman Steve were trying to establish some sort of naming convention for the various animals they would hunt or not hunt. Bob for example was very fond of horses, and decided decided they were one of the more awesome things out there. Unfortunately, much to his dismay he was unable to communicate to Steve which animal he was talking about.

“You know, the things with the legs” he said. Steve was being difficult though.

“Dude, like every thing out there has legs!” This was true. Having legs was a property of almost all living things. Almost…

“That long, crawling thing that bit Margaret on the butox last mood did not have any legs” Bob was of course talking about a snake, but as we established before these early cavemen had no systematic name classification for the beasts of the jungle.

“Anyway, “ he picked up again “I was talking about the ones that run around a lot. They are awesome!”
“And again, that description fits just about anything. You will have to be more specific”

Bob was at a loss. “They have tails?” he tried, but Steve’s expression told him that his friend was still not getting it. Desperate, Bob tried to imitate the sound horses make, but unfortunately he was very bad at making sounds. So the noise he made sounded nothing like a horse, but rather like a constipated gazelle. Besides, Steve never actually heard a horse, or a constipated gazelle so it was a moot point anyway.

All this embarrassing noise making accomplished nothing, and to make matters worse it woke up Caveman Percival who was trying to catch a quick power nap between making stone flints, and ruining away from the wild cougars. He made some nasty comments about Bob and Steve’s sexual preferences (which, BTW was a first gay joke in the history of man) and then reluctantly joined the discussion. You see Percival did see a constipated Gazelle once and he mistakenly believed that it was the animal that Bob was trying to describe. So he decided to help.

The three of them went back and forward like this for hours. Bob talking about horses, Percival about gazelles and Steve in state of utter confusion. Finally, in an act of desperation Bob dipped his fingers in some shit, and smeared it on the wall producing this:


“Oh!” said Steve, finally realizing what the hell Bob was going on about.

“Oh!” said Percival finally realizing that he got the wrong animal. He was about to say something about Bob’s noise making skills, but instead he took some shit himself, and smeared a gazelle on the wall. “I thought you meant this”. They all shared a chuckle, and then they decided they need to totally invent lavatory facilities next, cause there was way to much shit on the floor (and now also on the walls).

They were the first artists, but they created the cave paintings not because of some artistic yearning, but out of the need to find more efficient ways of communication. They invented data compression. The rest is just a history.

Now, I believe that our three cavemen would probably sort the animals out without the drawings. But it might involve more annoying noise making, more make believe and plenty of confusion. It could even mean a trip outside of the cave or even a whole hunting expedition. Instead they have learned how to compress all of that in a form of a picture. Real artists will probably disagree with this assessment, but they are wrong. They just don’t know enough about computer science to make this conceptual leap. Whether they want it or not, their art is still data compression. They are packing complex ideas and/or emotions onto a spatially limited medium in a way that allows it to can be consumed, and understood at a glance.

Think about it! It may take an author a whole chapter, or even a whole novel to evoke certain emotions in the reader. It is a slow process that requires time, and reader participation. A painting on the other hand, can deliver the same emotions in a split second. Even a wayward, accidental glance on a painting or a sculpture may cause an avalanche of emotion, or impart sudden understanding.

I say that’s a damn fine compression.

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13 Responses to The Most Ancient Form of Compression

  1. mcai8sh4 UNITED KINGDOM Opera Linux Terminalist says:

    What an enjoyable read that was! I’m especially fond of the ‘first gay joke..”. I wonder how the first ‘your mum…’ joke came about.
    More seriously you make a strong argument. The main problem I can see is, if Bob and Steve where in my ancestry, then even drawing a horse might cause others to think of a constipated gazelle – if I’m lucky. Art is not one of my talents.
    One of the nice parts of data compression is portability. Compress a lot of data, and it’s easier to move to another location. The problem with this early method is rather than laboriously describing your data, you have to cart around a shit smeared cave wall… or redraw (it the latter being the obvious option).
    Thought provoking never the less.

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  2. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Language could be looked at in the same way – taking complex ideas or combinations of experience and slapping a single word on the top to describe the whole thing.

    Just think how much more laborious it would be to have to systematically describe every component of everything you talk about, instead of just using those wonderfully easy nouns…

    But before you can agree on a word, you need to know what the hell you’re all referring to, so being able to smear shit on a wall to get the point across would be a help :P

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  3. mcai8sh4 UNITED KINGDOM Opera Linux Terminalist says:

    It’s strange how society changes… smearing shit on a wall still gets your point across efficiently, but these days I think it’s frowned upon.

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  4. astine UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Believable. Though I remember hearing somewhere that research suggested that it had something to do with recording visions and hallucinations.

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  5. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Damnit, Matt` stole my comment :( <— words + picture = major idea compression

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  6. I think it goes both ways.
    Words can do things that pictures can’t. (But it’s not equal, pictures win by far.)

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’ll chime in on the “words are compression too”. No, not really. Words are an abstraction method. You name things and you have a common vocabulary of symbols with attached meanings. They facilitate communication rather than compress it.

    Words, and language in it’s simplest form are used for abstracting things and actions.

    Horse. Me. Me go! Me go horse! Me ride horse!

    After you get sophisticated enough you start using words to abstract more complex ideas such as love, duty, commitment, horse shit and etc. It’s like using closures or macros – you are assigning arbitrary chunks of your verbal code to variables. You are not really compressing – you are abstracting.

    And whenever you do that, you need to store the definition of that abstraction somewhere. Like in a dictionary. Each of the complex words has a long definition. When you use that word you are essentially using a pointer to that definition.

    Images though, don’t have this problem. They can encapsulate concepts and ideas without the need of abstraction, or referring to a definition.

    At lest that’s how I see it. :)

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  8. My turn:

    Words are the compressed forms of pictures. Which takes more time: To draw a picture (or even TAKE a picture) of me…. or to just say “Travis” which instantly creates a mental image of me for you to think of? thus “Travis” instantly decompresses the image in mental form without the need of a physical form which you already started out with.

    We already compressed the image of a horse into “horse” in our brain, and if he had never seen a horse, he did after he saw the ..erm… mural on the wall… then they established horse was the name of this so there on out, they could remember the shit painting by “horse”.

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  9. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Actually, words are indeed an abstraction. But pictures led to writing by compressing small schemas into hyeroglyphs, ideograms, then syllabic or alphabetic characters. These were used to represent words and as such they became a new way to compress data. But words in themselves (a sound = an idea) is no compression, that’s true, just abstraction.

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  10. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Oh, my… How could I put so many grammatical mistakes in so few words?

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  11. [quote comment=”11373″]Oh, my… How could I put so many grammatical mistakes in so few words?[/quote]


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  12. nori SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    hmm.. that actually makes sense.. i think i’m gonna start annoying artists out there with this..

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  13. Mads DENMARK Opera Windows says:

    (sorry, late to the party)

    But the real question is: what can we use all this for?
    As far as I know, there’s no compression of words to pictures programs out there.

    And what about going the other way?
    Take an image ( ), how do you decompress it to a description of it? If that’s what’s needed, I’m not even sure it is a description that will be decompressed, but some sort of output is needed for sure.

    And what about movies? if you need 1000 words for every frame in a movie, it’s gonna be a huge book :)


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