Everything is Software, Part 2
|afterstate||May 16, 2018|
“Minesweeper is more addictive than Solitaire. Players are pitted against themselves, trying to beat their own best times. People have been known to dream about it.”
The Washington Post, 1994
Despite efforts by operating system designers to have us dream of their software, we probably haven’t “become” digital until recently. During the better half of the 90s and the early 00s, architecture operated through digital means analogically. Meaning that CAD paper-space digitized drafting tables and a common phrase thrown around was, “the tool is only as good as the designer.” For architects, becoming digital referred to pragmatically adopting a software-based workflow from conceptual design to construction administration, yet always through an analogical lens. Architectural work continued to operate as it did on paper (i.e. orthographically), only with a virtual pen and virtual paper. This was further reinforced by the skeuomorphism employed by user interface designers, who proposed familiar imagery in the form of virtual icons as means of transitioning toward the digital. Of course, none of this is revelatory except to say that we may not have been epistemically digital until we broke away from these analogical workflows.
A key contributor to this evolution stems from the realization that analog need not be opposed to digital. In fact, the two could be seen as fundamentally interrelated, if not dependent on each other. For instance, one definition of analog is: a set of information that exists continuously along various scales, such as a sound wave. This applies to the continuous electrical currents in microchips or the magnetic field of a hard drive. By contrast, if we take digital to mean, “discrete units of countable information,” cellulose cinematic film may be considered digital due to its reliance on still frames and timecode. Additionally, Florian Cramer reminds us that “an LCD screen is a hybrid digital-analog system: its display is made of discrete, countable, single pixels, but the light emitted by these pixels can be measured on an analog continuum.” Nevertheless we should be careful not to let the scale of this distinction get out of control. After all, as Friedrich Kittler mentions in “There is No Software,” once we dive into the mechanisms of electrical impulses, it is all just energy. What we might ask instead is how does John May’s definition of image as the output of energetic processes represented in discrete, measurable units, or “data,” depict new ways of contemplating architectural work?
May suggests architects are finally pushing past analogical thinking thanks to widespread software such as BIM (Building Information Modeling). It has replaced drawings with images, geometry with statistics, syntax with source code, and tectonics with commands. It has also skewed our priorities towards the management of information, and seduced us with seamless, real-time, synergy. Today, as workdays fill up with synchronization rituals, googling errors, and resetting file permissions, we may finally call ourselves digital. But this is only half the story.
In order to fully grasp the significance of this shift software must be discussed. If becoming digital involves trading in orthography for telematics, then the software collating and interpreting those signals dictates how designers interact with data. Therefore, architecture’s fate may be more dependent on redundancy protocols in Autodesk’s Cloud servers or security settings within a file than on relationships between pixel color values and their appearance. If everything is already an image, then the media through which we consume/store/process those images warrants as much scrutiny as the bits, bytes, electrical impulses, brightness values, and real-time updates constituting that image. So we must first acknowledge that everything is not only images, but images linked to software. And that now, as Lev Manovich put it “is, therefore, the right moment to start thinking theoretically about how software is shaping our culture, and how it is shaped by culture in turn.”
This is what becoming digital must mean: an embrace of the critical and cultural effects of ubiquitous computing and software on the discipline of architecture. Architects are neither cyborgs nor programmers, but living in a world of ubiquitous software implies that our primary mode of communication, the architectural drawing, is a mostly digital artifact. It comes in PDF, DWG, DXF, JPG, PNG, RVT, and many other variants. The relationship between software and file formats dictates that a document’s mutability hinges on a layer of code for interpretation and another for representation. The user may manipulate the file in various ways, using commands, code, or mostly likely graphical interface buttons. However, any discussion on architecture’s software tends to be regarded as taboo. Architects are masters of abstract principles. They communicate their work primarily in terms of diagrams, processes, or relationships; rarely as part of a specific workflow between programs. Workflows are secret, personal devices deployed strategically. And yet, as the new landscape of available software and apps increases, so does the number of managerial decisions to make regarding our products. This warrants a need for deeper mental grasp of these systems. For example, if a designer sketches by hand on a tablet, she will immediately have to decide whether to save the sketch as a JPG, PNG, TIFF, or any other image file-type as well as the pixel resolution of the sketch, file format version, and whether or not to store it on a cloud server. The drawing is no longer solely understood as a set of projective or perspectival gestures, but also as a variant of any number of digital file formats readily used in contemporary practice.
At the same time we cannot ignore the proprietary nature of file formats, that hidden authorial mechanism within code that governs documents’ compatibility as well as permissions. This user-level politics is further problematized as designers are forced to contemplate backwards compatibility, which excludes users of outdated software versions, and legal predicaments of falsely licensed applications, which may have worse repercussions. Knowing that the drawing contains more information than relationships between pixels (security settings, permissions, compression method, etc), sheds light on the politics of the drawing in a way paper rarely did.
Beyond telematics and electrical signals, these new interactions enrich the dialogue between human and machine. A user is euphoric when she discovers a new shortcut; another might be frustrated to find their changes were not saved. A client might request the full RVT file from their architect alongside the compiled construction documents. Thus the digital architect, one who has become digital, is a figure whose principal task is not only to translate between drawing and building, but also to translate across a vast, ever-updating landscape of standardized file-types and graphical user interfaces, simultaneously making decisions about users, permissions, and longevity.
Casey Reas, HSB-119-006-090-1366-618, 2015
What software has engendered on one hand is a kind of medium specificity in design in which software’s inherent qualities dictate the aesthetics of its products (its materiality), and on the other a reconception of the digital’s relationship to the analog. While the first digital turn led to a set of codified norms concerning production of digital objects, these attitudes usually regarded software as a tool in the service of higher intellect. As the variety and prowess of tools available to architectural designers increased, software has evolved, too. Recall, for a moment, Casey Reas’ standalone executable artworks. These pieces do not require a media player or image viewer, the software is the artwork. They are liberated from the constraints of third-party applications in a way that even common JPG files are not. Software is no longer a simple vehicle for communicating that which we blindly create in our heads, but rather, much like analog media, it contributes to the formulation of that very thought from our first encounter with it, sometimes existing as the idea itself.
The aforementioned discussion of postdigital and postorthographic tendencies provides new frames of reference derived from new media art practices, but also illustrates a need for critical dissections of architectural media. A decade ago, work from designers and artists like T+E+A+M, John Gerrard, Casey Reas, and Carl Lostritto would all be lumped under computer art. Now that we all work on computers, we all capture images, and we’re all scrolling, swiping, clicking beings, we require more terminological specificity to orient ourselves within this new playing field. May identified becoming digital as “establishing meaningful expression within imaging itself, all the while acknowledging that our images no longer mean anything at all.” This paradox of extracting meaning out of meaningless data is perhaps where we have arrived with image sharing apps. On Instagram, for instance, users publish and consume images ceaselessly. At the time of writing this sentence, there are 71,452,378 images catalogued under the hashtag architecture. While it is unlikely that Instagram itself will host a meaningful discourse on imaging or architecture, it has already proven to be one of the most culturally significant pieces of software. Its attendant social phenomenon has even triggered new scholarship within the digital humanities. Architecture, for now, moves at a slower pace. But if a piece of software aimed at sharing digital images is shaping social behaviors and contributing to a shared cultural history, architecture, which is informed by those behaviors and histories, should acknowledge this new consciousness. Our spaces are growing increasingly virtual, our literature more hypertextual, and it is all facilitated through software. We should talk about it.