code ¦ script

by Alexander Bove

In the article Code (or, How You Can Write Something Differently), Friedrich Kittler employs a historical trace of codes, more precisely, how these sequences of signals evolved. Factual evidence implies that functional codes were preceded by true alphabets, dating back to the times of ancient civilizations. At various moments in time, the evolution of code was observed, whether it be in cryptanalysis during the Roman Empire, across Alberti’s polyalphabetic code, or the earliest iterations of ciphering and deciphering intrinsic to Morse code. Moreover, this historical regression, provided by Kittler empowers us with both knowledge and perspective, allowing us to question the relationship that exists between mathematics and encryption today. Through his theory, Alan Turing answers this question in presenting the notion of computable numbers, which posits that “a finite quantity of signs belonging to a numbered alphabet can be reduce to zero and one” (Kittler 2003).

Turing also vehemently believed that the primary purpose for which computers were created is to decode plain human language. Kittler closes on several stimulating ideas, one of which remarks “how far computing procedures [can] stray from their design engineers” (2003). This statement in particular begs the question whether designers retain autonomy and control over architecture when it is subject to code-generated computer software? Also, Kittler states that “technology puts code into the practice of realities […], it encodes the world” (2003), which leads us to question if codification and scripting are intrinsic parts of present-day society, how will they begin to affect the social aspects of our daily lives?

Through the summary of salient points in a panel discussion titled “Vivre et Parler”, the text Language, Life, and Code by Alexander Galloway analyzes the relationship between the three entities in its title. The aforementioned subject is discussed by four guests; an anthropologist, molecular biologist, linguist, and geneticist. During the interview, the panel shares their differing views on the links between language and DNA. Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss shared the most interesting views on this matter, the former stating that both “operate through permutations of a relatively small number of basic units” (Galloway 2006), while the latter speculated that DNA cannot be understood as a language because with it, there is no significance. Instead, Lévi-Strauss stressed that one should question if the meaning of DNA was in the code itself, or in the relationship between coding elements? Lévi-Strauss’ view on language and DNA was of particular interest when reading the text because he implies that language is symbolic, whereas DNA is simply an inert molecule.

While language is understood and ‘decoded’ via a human cognitive process, DNA merely computes whether through the living cell, or genetic algorithms. Nevertheless, Galloway emphasizes in his article that code is omnipresent in both language and life. In light of these discussion points, are humans and their cognitive de-codification process a necessary interface between computer language and the physical world? Without them (humans), is computer language meaningless? More importantly, how would a liberated computer language, free from the finite nature of linguistic possibilities, affect/change the relationship between DNA (humans) and computer language (technology)?

Written by the first Autodesk product manager for architecture in the mid 1980s, Scripting by Malcolm McCullough discusses the progress of scripting and coding, and its relevance in architecture today. According to the author, it is simply too much work to conceive and construct every design element uniquely, and for this reason, user-friendly design software – where the programming work has been executed by programmers in the background – are emerging as tools of choice in the marketplace. McCullough makes clear in his text that one of the most revolutionary impacts of scripting is its ability to add a whole extra level to design thinking. In doing so, it also combats many of the misunderstandings people may have about it. Thus, instead of hampering creativity, an expressive medium which employs scripting with well-established constraints is where the richest iterations occur, much like dabbling in form on a computer is not a distraction, but the use of software accelerates and articulates conjecture and tangible design speculation. In disproving these misconceptions, McCullough illustrates that “the role of computers in design is seldom one of automation” (2006), and more so, a design world that needs to be explored and tweaked with finesse. Historically, the origins of scripting can be traced back to AutoCAD, the earliest example of this technology in a host program. Eventually, the evolution of scripting led to the generation of shape grammar, and the respectable parametric software which ensued. In doing so, design computing was no longer just a tool, as it influenced the designer’s choices and by extension, the resulting form. On the foundations of these technological advancements, “programming culture has been rediscovered in architecture” (McCullough 2006). The author cites for its resurgence, including digital fabrication, cultural expression in form, and craft personalization, where the latter is the most distinct. In my opinion, it is precisely the ability to customize one’s workspace and scripting patterns that make programming so enticing for architects and designers. Based on this, how can architectural software become an open-source design tool amongst industry professionals? In terms of efficiency and pragmatics, would a universal coding language allow greater communication and collaboration across disciplines, or would it simply constrain the freedom of the designer?

In the article Digital Style, Mario Carpo examines digital tools in the context of architecture, and how the former has affected architectural thinking and the style as a whole. While introducing the topic, Carpo puts forward the notion of collective intelligence by comparing wealth of knowledge and response accuracy to a statistical anecdote where people guess an ox’s weight at an auction. He posits that collective intelligence is the root of code/scripting. Despite the convenience and searchability this provides, collectivity also gives rise to other important questions raised by Carpo in his text. Whereas documents in print are fixed entities, digital notations can change anytime and thus, are in a “permanent state of interactive variability” (Carpo 2011). In theory, this fluid state sounds promising as it insinuates unlimited possibilities for design proposals. However, what impact does interactive variability have on tangible aspects of the built environment? According to Carpo, despite some users occasionally introducing faulty script into an open-source environment, the volume of interactions will eventually correct the code, creating an autonomous system. Moreover, this state of permanent drift has resulted in the “open-ended logic of ‘aggregatory’ design” (Carpo 2011). In addition to affecting aspects of our social life, ‘aggregatory’ digital making has influenced building design through parametricism, and participatory design software (i.e. BIM). In discussing both of these, Carpo tackles the question of authorship in design, as these forms of software are participatory in nature and intrinsically imply hybrid agency. In concluding the text, Mario Carpo interestingly speculates on the future of the design profession, proposing a scheme where “one agency or person initiates the design process, then monitors, prods and curbs, and occasionally censors the interventions of others” (2011). In such a scheme, with whom does the authorship of the resulting design lie? How is this form of working at times synonymous, and at others different from methods of practice currently being carried through in architectural firms?

Several parallels exist between the assigned texts, notably the idea that code and language share a complex, interdependent relationship, that structured organization is inherent to a functional bit of code, that scripting adds an extra layer to design thinking, that code and aggregatory thinking affect human social life, in addition to many more. When considered holistically, the points raised by each respective author provides us with perspective, and a contextual understanding of both the benefits of code and scripting at the epicenter of our professional work, as well as dangers we should be wary of. While some can simply be remedied by maintaining a broad, objective point of view, others are much more difficult to evade as code cements itself into present-day realities.

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by Daniel Campanella

In Mario Carpo’s Digital Style, the author discusses design through digital tools in architecture. He starts his text by introducing the statistical concept of accuracy of averages where precision is proportional to the number of means collected. This is similar to market prices. Hence, he argues that the design of objects must follow the same participatory methodology. Furthermore, a digital asset belongs to collective design and “cannot be reduced to the expression of a vote or a number”(Carpo 2011). If the assumption of an open source design is accepted, we must assume that any digital object be non-stable. Carpo relates softwares to digitally designed architecture through participatory design. In fact, he contends that architects are slowly losing authorship over their formal creations. Thus, with the advent of BIM and parametric design, buildings will become designed via committee. Architecture will become an approximation of different means.

Scripting is written by the first Autodesk product manager Malcolm McCullough in the 1980’s. McCullough states that thanks to the improvement of user interfaces, designers are now scripting unconsciously. He says, “it makes no more sense to design by drawing each line and modelling every surface than it does to drive an aeroplane down the highway” (McCullough 2006). There is no longer a need to be specialized to use software. Moreover, these modern tools are similar to the codification of the alphabet where a finite number of characters are set and other possibilities are excluding. In this way, digital design tools may only create a determinate number of possible creations. Thus, computers have to create their own language.

Alexander Galloway’s article Language, Life, Code discusses the notions of language, information, and DNA through a panel consisting of an anthropologist, a molecular biologist, a linguist, and a geneticist. The first point of conversation is the advent of cryptography in the Second World War. During the war, swapping letters created coded messages for an alphabetical counterpart that was a set number away on the list. The conversation wanted to elaborate on the cross discipline uses of code. The concept of code starts with organization. This can be seen both in language and in DNA. However, “DNA cannot be understood as a language” as signification does not exist (Galloway 2006). Moreover, language is symbolic, but can that be said about letters? Scripting has added a new dimension of design thinking. The author states, “[f]irst you set up some rules for generating forms, then you play them to see what kind of design world they create, and then you go back and tweak the rules” (2006). In architecture, composition of scripts submitted to improvisation. In this way, software could create a discontinuity between the object and the designer as “parametrics work better in domains whose subject is engineered form itself” (2006).

In Friedrich Kittler’s Code (or, How You Can Write Something Differently), the author examines the historical foundation of codes through signal sequencing. Codes started out as communication technology. Moreover, codification became viable through the finite set of characters or alphabet. Code was first used in Roman times and it was synonymous with cryptography. However this method would still use semantics. Hence, the advent Morse code represented an optimized code. Today, the code that is processed by computers must pass Kolmogorov’s test where the input should be shorter than the output. This was possible with the Touring machine in 1936, which was able to process finite whole number to infinite long numbers. The author ponders on the idea of a non-human language and whether or not humans would be able to understand them. Code would have to be modeled for syntax and semantics. In present time, code is used to organize the world. Hence, it simulates reality. The author ends by questioning if computers would be able to create their own code from their environment.

The common thread in these articles is the need for organization through scripting. In fact, coding/scripting seems to be cautiously bond by a finite set of parameters not allowing computers to create their own language. Would computers creating their own language be comprehensible to man? Would that accelerate simulation of reality? The concept of organization bleeds out into the domain of digital architecture where this is a preconceived notion that creativity is bound by the software. However, in my opinion, creativity is bound by the learning curve of this programs and the subsequent lack of scripting. Architecture has been a profession that strove for the total understanding of buildings/objects through drawings, models, and intuition. Currently, architectural practice is lagging behind the digital tools. This failure to grasp new tools creates new specialists within the domain. Design by committee does not have to exist if the architect is the master of all.

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