“[Digital technologies] are no longer the tools for making: they are primarily tools for thinking.”
Mario Carpo, The Alternative Science of Computation
When I was around 10, my dad worked in desktop publishing. He’d occasionally bring home CDs with some software he was working with, and would install it on our family computer. We had a few games on this machine, but my favorite pastime was in fact playing with these weird programs that had names like PageMaker, Flash, and PaintShopPro. I didn’t know exactly what they were for, but the interfaces would let me make shapes and animations and print out my results. It was fun and I was a weird kid. Looking back, I now realize that I’ve relied on software for my creative output for a long time.
A lot has changed over the years, but I’m still pretty dependent on software. Not just for creativity, but also for communicating, shopping, navigating, banking…and everything else grown-ups do. And I’m sure you are, too. To make this point a bit more polemic, we can turn to media theorist Lev Manovich, who in 2013 wrote, “there is no such thing as ‘digital media.’ There is only software.” In other words, because all digital artifacts rely on a set of interpretations of electrical signals, Manovich posits that software and media today are inseparable; to think of one is to think of the other. There are no images without image-viewers, no MP3s without MP3 players, etc. As such, creatives have come to understand acts of creation as fundamentally tied to a set of programs or interfaces that digitize our ideas and literally bring them to light (on LCD screens).
This point has recently been addressed critically by figures like John May, whose piece, “Everything is Already an Image,” in Log 40 is now a de-facto reference in any conversation concerning digital images, renders, or drawings, and Ellie Abrons, whose seminar/workshop entitled “Becoming Digital” at the University of Michigan unpacks computation as a background condition of our reality. However, while I agree with these approaches—of dissecting the substrate of our digital artifacts/instruments—the call for theories of digital media immediately bypasses a key condition of our contemporary mode of production, which 10-year-old me was already grappling with: the dependence on software.
And so what I’d like to do is provide a corollary discussion in the form of responses to two ongoing recalibrations of the “digital” in architecture as they relate to software. First is a clarification of terms that through recent overuse have become muddled and vague, such as post-digital. Here, we must look outside architecture to new media studies or the digital humanities for a clearer cultural definition of exactly what role “post-” plays in that word. This way post-digital might achieve more specificity, and avoid the fate of, let’s say, “postmodern.” My second thread is the notion of “becoming digital,” which conveys a struggle for architecture to assert its key intellectual dominance over mechanical tools in a world of ubiquitous computing. Architecture’s rule of intellection over techne has now reached a tipping point and exposed a need for theories of our everyday tools (i.e. software). And here, “becoming” now acts as a foil for a re-evaluation of the digital itself and its waning status as a monolithic black box. In short, these observations advocate for a deeper look at the critical and cultural role that software plays in design processes.
Post-Digital or Post-Orthographic?
As the novelty of the “digital” wanes, and the word itself crumbles into a vague, dusty relic from previous unnamed futures, its attendant concepts (those of code, electric impulses, and virtual geometry) have receded into an inaccessible layer behind a wall of infinite software. This substrate, which makes up the backbone of our social, economic, and political realities, has become so pervasive that its previously accepted visualization as a set of ones and zeros is virtually obsolete. The Matrix screensaver visual has been replaced by images of data centers, stock photos of blue-ish gradients, clouds, and app icons, causing the term to paradoxically represent both everything and nothing simultaneously.
In response to this collapse, two terms have emerged to rectify the discipline in their own way, post-digital and post-orthographic. Both positions have rich theoretical underpinnings, but for brevity’s sake, let us simply say that the former equates computation to an outsider at the service of some architectural thought, while the latter posits that computation has evolved into part of the thought process itself. Pragmatically speaking, we see post-digital often associated with images that do not explicitly elicit any traces of digital matter (though we know that they are), whereas post-orthographic material very much warrants a discussion of data and computational logics (though we wish they wouldn’t).
What is interesting about these two terms is how polarized they are; it is a battle between simulacra and simulation. Post-digital in architecture, as most recently described by Sam Jacob, comes a as melancholy reaction to the ubiquity and stylistic positivism associated with parametrics. In “Architecture Enters the Age of Post-Digital Drawing,” Jacob points to a recovered disciplinary loss in the act of drawing out thoughts with computers. After its publication, the consensus was that collage is post-digital because it enables a dirtier way of working through and illustrating design narratives and concepts. But the examples put forth by Jacob and his allies of textured, saturated, flat, non-realistic images, run the risk of equating “post-digital” with the derogatory mot, “style.”
Within the digital humanities, post-digital aesthetics takes on a different, albeit related definition. The label is fundamentally defined as a return to low-fidelity modes of operating. Some have equated the resurgence of craft and retrograde technologies as a symptom of post-digital-ness. Others claim that post-digital enables a new understanding of materiality, one based on objectivity rather than analogy or abstraction. A useful definition comes from Florian Cramer’s, “What is ‘Post-digital’?” in which he states:
Post-digital could be understood as a moniker for a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets…After Edward Snowden’s disclosures of all-pervasive digital surveillance, this disenchantment has grown from a niche “hipster” phenomenon to a mainstream position that will likely impact all cultural and business practices built upon networked electronic devices and Internet services.
In other words, it is not post- in the same sense of postmodern, but instead is more closely associated with post-punk or post-colonial; a rejection of the status quo and an alternative way to move forward. Understanding the label as such may not provide complete immunity against being marginalized as a style, but it is a start.
Post-orthographic, on the other side of the spectrum, elicits a more evolutionary point of view. According to May, it suggests that we no longer think in geometric terms, but rather through telematic means. With this in mind, architectural media is expanding and making use of simulation, animation, automation, communication, synchronization, and visualization technologies. May:
post-orthographic technical systems now enmesh our work in “real time,” materialized in signals and image-models…Because all signalization requires the materialization of a statistically managed signal-to-noise ratio, all post-orthographic image-models are probabilistic in their underlying logic.
Post-orthographic work also rejects the status quo, but does not linger on losses. Instead, it accepts our informatic, data-driven society, and asks how can art be extracted from such a viscous layer of convoluted systems. Those working within the umbrella of post-orthographic, whether explicitly or not, use the underlying substrate of computation as a medium for critical experimentation. The work, therefore, takes on new forms of expression, such as simulations, real-time animations, misuses of programs, bespoke software, or hacked infrastructures.
The two labels seem to constitute a spectrum of new architectural media attitudes. Of course both are facilitated through software, each has an independent critical attitude towards the medium itself. For example, the rising trends of pen-plotter drawing and 3d scanning rocks definitely belong somewhere in the spectrum, but it’s difficult to say exactly where without going deeper into each project. While, medium in the age of computation might be defined as “a combination of a data structure and a set of algorithms,” the real potential lies in the affective quality of the produced material and its ability to be translated (not to mention consumed) across the vast landscape of screens. Thus the post-digital-post-orthographic spectrum naturally warrants a new definition of materiality based on assemblages that can encompass, code, data-sets, executables, and other virtual “stuff that’s assembled and manipulated to produce things.”
Are We (Epistemically) Digital Yet?
In a sense, not 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, 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.
May suggests we are finally pushing past analogy and that BIM may have something to do with making us digital. It has replaced drawings with images, geometry with statistics, syntax with source code, and tectonics with commands. It has 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 users 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. 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 an image, but that it is also software. And that now, as 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.”
For the most part we live in a world of ubiquitous software, and our primary mode of communication, the architectural drawing is a wholly digital artifact. It comes in PDF, DWG, DXF, JPG, PNG, RVT, and many other flavors. It also relies on a layer of code for interpretation and another layer to present that code to the user. However, any discussion on software tends to be regarded as taboo. Like politicians speaking generally, architects communicate their work primarily in terms of images, abstract processes, or relationships; rarely as part of a specific workflow between programs. Workflows are secret, personal devices deployed strategically. MOS claims to have written their own software, but never released it to the public. 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 resolution of the sketch and version of the file format. The drawing is not 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.
A weird politics also arises here as we are forced to contemplate backwards compatibility, which would exclude users of outdated software, and legal predicaments of falsely licensed applications, which may have worse repercussions. Knowing that the drawing contains more data than relationships between pixels (security settings, permissions, compression method, etc), sheds light on the politics of the drawing at a different level. Thus, the digital architect 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 user permissions and longevity.
Moreover, what software has engendered is a kind of neo-greenbergian medium specificity in design. While the first digital turn (sometime around 1995-2006) led to a set of norms concerning production of digital objects, an increase in the variety and prowess of tools available to architectural designers—particularly from other fields such as video game design and visual effects industries—has opened the door to new attitudes towards architectural media. This might explain the resurgence in discourses on post-digital and post-orthographic representation, but also shed light on work increasingly resembling early new media art.
At the same time, we should not avoid thinking critically about software alongside our products. Mimicking video games or motion graphics may be interesting, but establishing a thoughtful discourse about, for example, gaming actions, simulations, or narrative code would provide a much needed supplement to the visual stimuli. As anyone who’s witnessed a child playing with an iPad knows, software is no longer a vehicle for simply communicating that which we blindly create in our heads, rather it contributes to the formulation of that very thought from the first time we are in contact with digital media. Yes, having computer processors running constantly in our pockets makes us somewhat digital, but analyzing the cultural impact of those devices might also enable us to evolve as digital beings.