“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”Marshall McLuhan , Understanding Media (1964)
Let’s begin with the premise that software is a tool that assists in the production, recording, and transmitting of data.
I recently purchased a new mattress; and as I was filling out paperwork I noticed that the salesman was also typing info into his computer but his user-interface had a black-background and green-text and looked like it was from 1997 – 🤔 – It got me thinking, why is it that some software “evolves” and continues to be updated and refined with new features, bells and whistles – while others, simply don’t, but somehow are still good enough for the job?
In “Software Takes Command”, Lev Manovich states, “the new ways of media access, distribution, analysis, generation, and manipulation all come from software”. I think it is important to understand this statement; unless you are a hermit in some desolate cabin up in Oregon, any contemporary person doing creative work will at some point in their process have to contend with software.
Let’s assume that those who have decided to do creative work have also consciously chosen to use a certain software to develop their work/projects. There will be those who rely heavily on a certain piece of software and the associated tools, there will be those who don’t really think about it. I’m not interested in the discussion about which mode is better than the other, what I am interested in is a discussion about how the software and commands are being used to create the work.
I would like to present a model — a framework really — to assist in understanding how software contributes to the process of creating work.
It works like this – the format is a 2D Cartesian Grid, and a project can be located along this (x,y) space.
On the X-Axis is a spectrum between conceptual and technical use of the tools in a software. It asks the question, in which direction does the work align? Something purely technical for example would be using outlook to correspond with people by email. Something purely conceptual would be to maybe use Outlook only for the purpose of sending your future child e-mails, 20 years into the future. However, in these two examples you are still using e-mail, the conventional medium of Outlook.
This is where the Y-Axis comes in.
On the Y-Axis is a spectrum of alignment between the work output and the standard medium of the software in use; Is the format of the work in harmony or chaos with the conventional medium of the software? A piece of work that is purely in harmony with the software will output the native media format of that software. Using Adobe Illustrator harmoniously will result in a vector based image. Using Adobe Illustrator chaotically will result in direct opposite of vector based work. I define chaos as a rejection of the software conventions.
From High School geometry you might remember quadrants. Figure 1 presents 4 quadrants; below is a picture of what happens in each quadrant.
Quadrant I: Harmonious Technical : A process that uses software in its intended use and the tools and methods to achieve this are technical. The draw insulation command in Revit is used to draw insulation. The software is meant to do X, the user uses it to do X. The tool in the software is meant to do X, the user uses it to do X.
Quadrant II: Harmonious Conceptual: A process that uses software in its intended use and the tools and methods to achieve this are conceptual. Photoshop is still used for its purpose of making images, but the brush tool is no longer just a brush, it also becomes an eraser, and a way to smudge and move other pixels already recorded in the image.
Quadrant III: Chaotic Conceptual: A process that ignores the intended use of a software and the tools and methods used to create the work are conceptual. You open up image files in Audacity (audio software) apply a filter (software tool) to the raw data, then save it back to an image file. The image file is now corrupted-congratulations you made glitch-art.
Quadrant IV: Chaotic Technical: A process that ignores the intended use of a software and the tools and methods used to create the work are technical. A spammer is still using the tools of outlook for their intended purpose, they write text, use signatures, etc. But the emails they are sending are not the types of email that should be sent using outlook. Okay what am I trying to say for the last quadrant about chaotic technical, well chaotic means it is not using the software for it’s intended purpose, and technical means however that they are using the software tools for rather technical purposes, using the tools as they were intended to be used.
All that is fine and dandy, But how can this theoretical model be applied in practice? Below I present two case studies.
Case Study #1 The art of the Instagram influencer is to present their lifestyle (read: body and wealth) as close to perfection as possible for the purpose of likes, followers, and sponsorships. In the pursuit of this mission, the influencer is in harmony with the software (x-axis), Instagram asks that you comment, post, and share – images, videos, and hashtags – and the influencer does so readily, and consistently. This art is also skewed towards the technical (y-axis), they make use of all the tools within Instagram for their intended purpose, using hashtags for relevant topics, tagging the appropriate people, effects and filters are used on the appropriate images.
Further Reading: https://www.instagram.com/beauty.false
Case Study #2 The Palazzo Spada by Franceso Borromini, built in 1632. Now this is a bit of a stretch but bear with me. Borromini didn’t exactly have “software”, but he had the latest nifty technology called Perspective. For this example, I assume that perspective is a software. It has an intended outcome (an image), and specific tools to execute that outcome.
What Borromini did in this case was to use the software of perspective for the purpose of creating a recognizable but false reality. Per the graph, a chaotic technical example; Borromini uses the tools of perspective in a highly technical manner, the outcome however is not an image but a space, an Architecture.
Further Reading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CX_S4_c5xJ0
The question I pose is, How are the tools you are using shaping your work?
Some books relevant to this topic: Program or be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff Software Takes Command by Lev Manovich Why Architects Still Draw by Paolo Belardi The Second Digital Turn by Mario Carpo