A critical, reflective practice requires contemplation and reconsideration of one’s work — of seeing in new ways — and technology also provides a means of achieving this. English art critic and historian John Berger, in his 1972 television series (and later book) Ways of Seeing, describes how the advent of photography altered perceptions of art: “The invention of the camera has changed not only what we see but how we see it… The painting on the wall… can only be in one place at one time. The camera reproduces it, making it available in any size, anywhere, for any purpose.”1 For Berger, the camera transforms art, allowing us to see it and understand it in qualitatively different ways. Computational technology extends this phenomenon, transporting (and transforming) not only images, but data, information, and knowledge.
In conjunction with his hacking of Revit and architectural design software, Paul, the architect, proposes a way of working that involves multiple mediums. He describes a consistent experience in reviewing building designs: “We export our models from Revit into other platforms, like virtual reality… in order to walk around them or experience them in other ways… Every single time we’ve done that… [the designer] will notice something wrong with their model that they didn’t know was wrong.” Working in one medium alone limits the perspective of designers in such a way that their work is harmfully (not creatively) constrained. It’s preferable, instead, to reconsider one’s work, and different technologies serve as tangible environments in which to do that. Paul continues, “The best thing you can do to resist the specific limitations of a piece of software is to try it in another piece of software… use as many lenses as you have access to.” Interpreted as platforms, environments, and lenses, designers can see their computational tools not only as instruments for producing work, but as mediating experiences that can lead to new understandings.
Just as palpable digital technologies shift our thinking, immaterial constructs and concepts taken from computation can also act as lenses, providing new mental models for one’s work. Ken, for example, has not completely ‘unlearned’ a computational way of thinking, but also uses the language of variables and abstraction to describe a process of framing a design scenario: “‘A something is an X that’s a Y’… I will play with that statement. ‘What’s not an X and a Y? What is an X and not a Y?’ Like: A bus stop is an outdoor shelter where you wait for something. What’s an outdoor shelter where you don’t wait for something? What’s an indoor shelter where you wait for something?” The use of syllogisms as a logical, rhetorical device dates to antiquity, but Ken’s example is notably computational. A designer could write a computer program, encoding and storing concepts like ‘outdoor shelter’ and ‘waiting’ as variables in a procedure which generates a space of possibilities and simulates various explorations of that space in order to manifest design solutions to that particular framing. But such a hypothetical program might not be strictly necessary; perhaps more important to designers is the ability to see and play with abstractions from particulars. Computational thinking is only a rational, problem-solving strategy, but can be discursive: ‘How might I think about this object? What if I treated it as a variable? A constant? What parameters could be adjusted? What functions does it permit and what effects would they have on other objects?’ When asked about what he’s interested in learning next, Ken’s answer reveals a strong urge to see and know in new ways: “I would want to learn category theory and functional programming, because I think it would afford really interesting… conceptual metaphors to think about the world… I’m really curious [as] to what [else] I would learn that would help me see the world differently.” The tools designers use influence the way they think, but those tools also embody (implicitly or explicitly) a way of thinking — a lens that can then consciously be adopted or discarded in various design scenarios. The logics and truths of computation can serve as tools themselves in a designer’s repertoire. Alone, as David reminds us, computational thinking is insufficient for “architecture or art, [which] cannot [be made] into a rational problem,” but complementing other ways of seeing, it greatly expands the capabilities of the designer and the possibilities for design as a discipline.
1. Berger, John. "Ways of seeing.” London: BBC. 1972. ↩