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New Aesthetic? It’s The Software, Stupid!

posted Jul 16, 2013, 8:43 AM by Ellen Pearlman


Timothy Johnson of the Design Division of Lincoln Labs, MIT, demoing the Sketchpad built in 1963, on a TX-2

Logic and coding are the real traffic cops behind the aesthetic of the “new aesthetic." Recently cultural theorist Lev Manovich looked at where media comes from, its anatomy, and how it affects the world by examining Adobe AfterEffects, Photoshop and Google Earth, among others. If Photoshop, for example,  affects video games design, and if that affects industrial design, do the constraints of one morph into the style of another? He examines software programs interfaces, the tools that are necessary to use them, and the ways or techniques they navigate, create, edit and share from their output. 

Manovich examined developers, designers, theorists and software engineers focusing on the 1960’s and 1970’s: J. C. R. LickliderIvan SutherlandTed NelsonDouglas Engelbart and Alan Kay. Oddly enough, there is not a lot out there about these processes as software does not lend itself to preservation and documentation. Applications they produced like Sketchpad (built in 1958) and paint programs were not very well documented, an odd phenomenon compared to the history of painting or photography with their troves of visual documentation. Manovich also discussed Alan Turning, who made a “universal machine" turning it into a “universal media machine."

Alan Kay’s Ph.D. proposal in 1968 (ten years before the Apple) which resulted in his 1972 Ph.D. thesis was for the "Dynabook," a personal computer for children that resembles an iPad with a keyboard. His original idea was for children to produce their own books, only more dynamic. He wanted a plasma screen with enough resolution to be read like a book; a keyboard that had no moving parts; a network connection where one could buy, move around and get files; global information ability and connection, especially for libraries to include media access and connectivity, and it should not cost more than $500.


Sketch for Alan Kay’s Dynabook

Sunderland made a Sketchpad in 1962 for his MIT Ph.D. thesis, and with its mathematical constraints, shown on a TX-2 machine, one can see the rudimentary nature of all visual drawing programs. Alan Kay believes it to be the first object oriented programming system in existence, since you can drag the sketch objects around once they are completed and place them into other objects. 


Sketchpad made on a screen with a touch pen in 1962

After the Graphical User Interface, or GUI, Algorithms or specific mathematical formulas that computers use to make decisions over and over again, gained in popularity.


Pretend algorithms looking for each other in space as swarms

 Used by both the military, and especially software traders, algorithms have grown so powerful they now crash up against one another without any human oversight. This can produce massive chaos that no one is responsible for, such as a mini flash crash of a stock market. Although it can happen in an instant, it can wipe out people’s portfolios and cause massive financial failures. You can call it the “aesthetics of chaos."


Weird Wall Street trading algorithm called “The Carnival"

Advertisers and services such as Netflix try and figure out what you want and what you might need, and serve things up to you that match from overlapping algorithms. Although they are not perfect, such as Pragmatic Chaos, winner of the Netflix prize, they do account for about sixty percent of choices made by Netflix subscribers. 

Even cleaning machines have algorithms about the way they envision your living space. 


Two different robot vacuum cleaners choices in room layout via pre-programmed mathematical calculations

All of these approaches engender an approach based on calculations, math, formulas and theories of linearity and scope. This translates into a visual aesthetic that underlies architecture, industrial design, and electronic art. It even translates into the more plastic arts such as painting and sculpture.  When we look back in curated exhibits fifty years from now, what will the algorithm reveal about our current aesthetic choices?