Although mathematical practices in design extend to antiquity (Vitruvius wrote extensively on proportion and symmetry in Ten Books on Architecture1), a potential genesis of computational design might be traced to Ivan Sutherland’s 1963 PhD dissertation, Sketchpad2. Now widely recognized as the first computer-aided design program, Sketchpad presented not just a new platform for designing, but a new paradigm for designing. A digital representation of points, lines, and shapes decoupled from drawings or physical models promised a new mode of plasticity for the architectural designer. By visualizing and manipulating objects in digital space through a computer interface, the designer gained a detached, abstracted view of their work. Sutherland and his fellow researchers were fully aware of (and striving toward) the transformative potential of their work, a history charted by computational design scholar (and my master’s thesis advisor) Daniel Cardoso Llach in his 2015 book Builders of the Vision: Software and the Imagination of Design.3 Notably, Sutherland’s PhD advisor, mathematician and designer Steven A. Coons, in a paper published the same year as Sutherland’s dissertation, wrote: “The design process is unpredictable. Indeed part of the design process consists in designing new ways to perform the design function itself”4 [emphasis mine]. Sketchpad was never used in industry, but succeeded in projecting the future of computational design. While technology has advanced greatly in terms of efficiency, ease of use, and computational power, the innovative features of Sketchpad remain central to 3-dimensional modeling and computer-aided design software today.
However, with increasingly powerful computation came an ethos that declared that the driving force behind new design possibilities was technology alone. Philosophically, Coons, as well as his student Nicholas Negroponte (founder of the MIT Media Lab and the One Laptop per Child initiative), were highly optimistic about the role of technology in driving the future. For example, as detailed by designer and historian Molly Wright Steenson in Architectural Intelligence: How Designers, Tinkerers, and Architects Created the Digital Landscape, Negroponte envisioned “an [artificially] intelligent environment that we would all eventually inhabit and that would eventually surround all of us.”5 Outside of architecture discourse, futurists such as Ray Kurzweil see the history and future of humanity as determined by technological advances, proceeding predictably and mechanistically, without critically considering the social and political forces at play. Computer scientist Stephen Wolfram, in his 2002 book _A New Kind of Science _promotes the notion that computational processes might replace the traditional, analytical scientific method. In turn, adapting Wolfram’s ideas to the world of architectural design, historian Mario Carpo writes of a ‘Second Digital Turn’ in architecture, following the widespread adoption of digital practices in the 1980s and ‘90s, wherein designed forms can be generated and optimized by algorithms.6 In his telling, the future of architectural design is written in increased computational efficiency. A view of technology as an autonomous force leaves one wondering: What is the role of the designer? Is there room for humanism?
As discussed by Cardoso Llach in Builders, a related (but distinct) school of thought to technological autonomy is the practical, everyday view that computational technologies are neutral tools. This theory holds that in architecture, for example, it is possible to directly translate a designer’s vision onto paper or into a digital model, and that different design softwares attempt to make this process more smooth and seamless. While this view undoubtedly places more emphasis on human agency when using technology (arguing that architects, not algorithms, design buildings), it is equally pernicious in claiming that technologies do not possess inherent values or biases. Historian Leo Marx points to the 19th-century development of a notion of ‘technology’ (constituting not only machines themselves but systems of technical and social complexity) as a moment which allowed ‘neutral tools’ to “distract attention from the human — socio-economic and political — relations which largely determine who uses them and for what purposes.”7 In particular, as further detailed by Cardoso Llach in Builders, discourses of computers and software today are driven by frames of autonomy and neutrality, a dichotomy which “hides a great deal… By construing software systems either as autonomous agents or as neutral tools for design, we shut down their politics… [and] their poetics… as territories of creative exploration.”
Another, more extreme version of technological determinism is the cognitive theory of computationalism. As digital humanities scholar David Golumbia writes in The Cultural Logic of Computation, computationalism is “the view that not just human minds are computers but that mind itself must be a computer — that our notion of intellect is, at bottom, identical with abstract computation.”8 Similarly, in their 1986 book Understanding Computers & Cognition, Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores carefully situate computers within the rationalistic tradition of thought. Concerned with the design of computer systems, their work is deeply relevant to broader design problems (including and especially computational design). They write, “An understanding of what a computer really does is an understanding of the social and political situation in which it is designed, built, purchased, installed, and used.”9 Clearly, approaches to computational design that avoid the pitfalls of both technological autonomy and neutrality must also eschew a primarily rationalist worldview. While computers are essentially machines that perform logical calculations, human interaction with them is socially and materially contingent. As anthropologist and human-computer interaction researcher Lucy Suchman writes, computers are situated in and inextricable from socio-technical systems.10
Logical, rationalist thinking about computation and design cannot easily tackle problems of significant social complexity. Instead, systems thinking and cybernetic philosophies provide a path toward working with and understanding complex systems. Texts such as physicist Fritjof Capra’s The Systems View of Life11 describe how the forms and affordances of material objects have unpredictable effects at scale, in turn being affected by their contexts. Environmental scientist Donella Meadows introduces the powerful notion of leverage points12 — the idea that, by analyzing the systems one is working in, one can predict what will be a more successful type of intervention (or at what level to intervene). Computationalism points to the lowest level in Meadows’ hierarchy of leverage points — constants, parameters, numbers — as an adequate site of intervention. It suggests that data is objective, and that conclusions can be derived from data that translate into actionable, instrumental designs to solve well-defined problems. For a designer with a notion of working within socio-technical systems, this clearly is a gross oversimplification.
Fortunately, a body of design and computation researchers and scholars are underscoring socio-technical complexity in their work. As mentioned above, Lucy Suchman’s notion of situated design technologies provides a strong counterargument to the false dichotomy of autonomy and neutrality. Design researcher Donald Schön describes the act of designing as a ‘reflective practice,’ with the designer engaged in a continuous conversation with their materials.13 Together, these theories have been highly instructive in formulating the third component of the computational design thinking framework put forward in this thesis. In addition, historians, scholars, and theorists such as Daniel Cardoso Llach, Molly Wright Steenson, Yanni Loukissas, Sherry Turkle, Kazys Varnelis, and Tara McPherson productively challenge and complicate received narratives of computation, architecture, digital technology, and design. And practitioners such as Laura Kurgan of Columbia University’s Center for Spatial Research, Taeyoon Choi of the School for Poetic Computation, and the Dark Inquiry collective of technologists, artists, and writers, all put forward work that critiques existing modes while also projecting new ways of being: Desirable, humane futures to strive toward. For example, a recent app created by Dark Inquiry, called Bail Bloc,14 applies spare computing power on its users’ laptops to mine cryptocurrency, which is exchanged for U.S. dollars on a monthly basis and put toward paying onerous bail funds for those awaiting trial. The project redirects existing technologies which might otherwise exacerbate inequality toward more egalitarian, just ends.
In addition, two recent and timely events seem to offer good omens of things to come. The first is a symposium called Computational Design: Practices, Histories, Infrastructures, held in October 2017 at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in conjunction with the exhibition Designing the Computational Image: Imagining Computational Design.15 Tracing the roots of computational design history to mid-20th century work by Coons, Sutherland and others, the exhibition also highlighted contemporary work by artists, architects, and designers. The symposium brought together many of these individuals in a rich series of talks and discussions covering their own architecture and design work and socio-historical examinations of technology and digital culture. In doing so, as well as by highlighting the material foundations of current and historical design research, the symposium charted the fluid space of computational design as a field of practice.
The second event is the Cybernetics Conference, held in November 2017 in New York City. Hosted by Prime Produce, a non-profit ‘guild for social good,’ the conference aimed to bring “scholars, technicians, activists, and artists in dialogue to consider the ways informatic systems shape social organization.”16 As if responding to the call made by Tara McPherson in her 2012 essay “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century” for “hybrid practices: artist-theorists; programming humanists; activist scholars; theoretical archivists; [and] critical race coders,”17 the speakers and participants at the _Cybernetics Conference _are extremely difficult to categorize by discipline. The conference’s three organizers18 alone do work as diverse as critical digital art, game design, social simulation, curatorial research, genomics, and (of course) event organizing. The conference serves as case in point that strong work and research is not merely aesthetically interesting or analytically sound, but challenges the boundaries of disciplines and received narratives of technology, information, and society.
We cannot afford to be neutral on the issue of the social context of our work. Even the most mundane works embody some vision of the future, and designers and technologists should do everything in their power to ensure that it represents a desirable future, or else it can (and will) be co-opted for other purposes. Contrary to tenets of technological determinism, autonomy, and computationalism, powerful computation has a productive role to play in the creation of designing in complexity, for multiple desirable futures. In fact, in this thesis, we will see that computational designers possess unique abilities in thinking and working this way.
1. Pollio, Vitruvius. Vitruvius: The ten books on architecture. Harvard University Press, 1914. ↩
2. Sutherland, Ivan E. "Sketchpad: a man-machine graphical communication system." Transactions of the Society for Computer Simulation 2, no. 5 (1964): R-3. ↩
3. Cardoso Llach, Daniel. Builders of the vision: Software and the imagination of design. Routledge, 2015. ↩
4. Coons, Steven Anson. "An outline of the requirements for a computer-aided design system." In Proceedings of the May 21-23, 1963, spring joint computer conference, pp. 299-304. ACM, 1963. ↩
5. Steenson, Molly Wright. Architectural intelligence: How designers, tinkerers, and architects created the digital landscape, MIT Press, 2017. ↩
6. Carpo, Mario. The second digital turn: Design beyond intelligence. MIT Press, 2016. ↩
7. Marx, Leo. "’Technology’: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept." Social Research (1997): 965-988. ↩
8. Golumbia, David. The cultural logic of computation. Harvard University Press, 2009. ↩
9. Winograd, Terry, and Fernando Flores. Understanding computers and cognition: A new foundation for design. Intellect Books, 1986. ↩
10. Suchman, Lucy A. Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication. Cambridge University Press, 1987. ↩
11. Capra, Fritjof, and Pier Luigi Luisi. The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge University Press, 2014. ↩
12. Meadows, Donella. Leverage points: Places to Intervene in a System, 1999. ↩
13. Schön, Donald A. The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books, 1984. ↩
14. Bail Bloc, https://bailbloc.thenewinquiry.com/, accessed December 1, 2017. ↩
15. In full disclosure, I was not only an attendee to the symposium and exhibition, but a research assistant who worked on two interactive software installations at the gallery, as well as a co-host of a design workshop held the weekend of the symposium. Both events were also curated and organized by my thesis advisor and M.S. Computational Design track chair, Daniel Cardoso Llach. I can’t claim to be an objective observer, but one who was deeply involved with the events of both the exhibition and symposium, and who benefited from the confluence of work, people, and ideas at them. As such, part of my goal in this thesis is to synthesize the conversations I observed and was a part of at these events, and to share the knowledge with a broader audience. ↩
16. The Cybernetics Conference, http://cybernetics.social/. Accessed December 1, 2017. ↩
17. McPherson, Tara. "US operating systems at mid-century." Race after the Internet (2013). ↩
18. Sam Hart, Melanie Hoff, and Francis Tseng, who are also associated with the School for Poetic Computation and Dark Inquiry, both mentioned above. ↩