The Field of Play

Some thoughts on the field of play, where thinking happens and understanding grows:

MEDIA


I

In the professions related to imagining and making things, professions that are part of these and other fields: design, engineering, architecture, manufacturing, construction, in all such fields in which a thing exists, or will exist, media is involved, always. Some kind of medium, or various kinds of media always are present in the ideation of the thing, and in the development of the idea and its clarification. Whether the thing is simple or complex, and whether large or small: a chair, a car, a house, a hospital, a power plant, a bridge, a ship, a canoe, media always is in play, or is the field of play, where thinking happens and understanding grows.

Spanning all of the types of things (and their complexity) — ranging from the bottle that holds some carbonated water, to the heart valve implant, to the rocket engine, to the oil refinery, to the city, and back down in scale, to the house, the lamp, the shoe, and so on, the point is: all things; with all things that are looked at, thought of, imagined, developed, clarified, with all ideas brought to completion, with all ideas that are understood, and communicated, all ideas that are built/made, and used — all things that become things, become what they are through a process that spans from some kind of beginning ideation, and continues through with thought rolling on inexorably from where it begins, through a long series of attempts at making the idea clear and full, developing until satisfactory (of whatever criteria that matter). These attempts of course involve steps forward and backward, and many failed attempts, but a general trend toward some kind of desired state. This trend toward goal remains in play from beginning to end.

I want to say something about the beginning. Things nascent don’t appear in a vacuum. They don’t arise from nowhere and nothing. And so we should avoid being rigid in defining this “beginning”. It’s helpful maybe just to say, “it starts early.” Before anything, there’s a world, right? Some kind of conditions exist, and some kind of need(s). All of this is some kind of fog of beginning. Some people do approach this more literally. For them, a beginning arrives when a commission is won to do something: “design something that satisfies these requirements”. In any case, things begin in some foggy mist, and then are clarified.

And things also end. Again, it’s counterproductive to be rigid in definition here. We can say, maybe, that things end sometime after things are needed, imagined, made, used, and discarded. At some point we call it an end. But of course things don’t end, not finally; they’re in the world, and so may be part of any number of other beginnings, either lost in some mist of possible beginning, or starting to become clearly marked out by some particular new beginning.

All of this, above, is itself some kind of beginning, a bit of a fog, but a beginning no less, toward this point I want to make: Some kind of medium is always involved, as we initiate and formulate our ideas, as we develop them, as we understand them and build our understanding of them, as we clarify our ideas and communicate them, as we learn from those communications and use what we learn, to build or make what was imagined, and even as we use the things that first were imagined and then made.

Here then I discuss this media that is always in play at every step along the way, various kinds of media, what we use media for, how we use it, what’s going on, actually, in our minds when we’re using media, the status of media, it’s history, current state, and yes, prognostications for its future.

II

If you’re interested in what media is, you talk about the form that media takes. It takes many forms. Today, the form of media begins again to be in flux with potential for substantial evolution (again). But it’s important to review current types first. If you want to prognosticate on what will come, you have to think about what has been and what is, first.

You could say that a spreadsheet is a medium. If you said so you’d be right. A spreadsheet is a form of media with a particular set of characteristics that we’re all more or less familiar with, even if we don’t use spreadsheets. The inherent nature of spreadsheets embodies fundamental aspects of the way we think. Spreadsheets facilitate an ability to list, an ability to correlate, to track, to calculate, to sum, to compare, and so on, with the complexity of comparison ranging from simple to complicated. A review of the kinds of thinking involved there could make an interesting article. I may come back to that someday, but for my purpose here it’s sufficient to simply identify spreadsheet as a type of media, and note that the medium has particular characteristics supporting particular kinds of thinking.

I think anyone would agree if asked that a spreadsheet is a field of play, a place where thinking happens and understanding grows. There’s no doubt about this.

Let’s move to writing. The text document is a medium, of course, an obvious and primary one. It’s an essential form, of media, a form that from its age and it’s clear utility has matured to the point that quite a number of sub-forms are recognized, like: the article, the essay, the novel, the fiction and non-fiction, the magazine, the dictionary, the website, the internet, the social media, the blog, the letter, the kind of letter, and so on. Like spreadsheet, there is no doubt that writing is a field of play, a place where thinking happens and understanding grows. There can be literally no one who doesn’t recognize this. The idea of “writing process” is familiar to all.

We have certain thoughts, and here we have to say, “what is thought?” Again let’s not get bogged down in detailed analysis, particularly of questions that neither scientists nor philosophers can answer. It’s not answer that we’re looking for, but simply recognition. And to get that, let’s entertain a small bit of philosophizing. We have certain “thoughts”. And these are pre-verbal. There is some kind of irritation in our mind. We can’t articulate its source, but we know we detect something that either we don’t like, or that we do like and want. And what this is, what we want or don’t want, like or don’t like, well, we can’t be precise, yet. We simply know that something must be said. We don’t know what, precisely, but “precisely” is too high a bar to begin with; both our irritation that compels us to respond, and the nature of our response, both of these might be not clear at all, just out there in dense fog. It’s to escape this fog that we’re compelled to think.

And to think, we need some kind of medium. The medium is language, and, with our language we can sit alone with our thoughts, for hours, thinking until we arrive at a well-formed idea clearly expressed. And we can speak it. Or we can keep it to ourselves. Either way, a clear thought can be lost in an instant. We all know this. We’ve all felt what it’s like to build a beautiful framework of ideas, and the most striking use of language driving an idea like an axe in wood. We know this clarity. And we also know that in an instant, suddenly it all disappears. The clarity, the ideas, the framework, all gone, forgotten.

And so we have written language, writing. Writing helps us remember what the hell we were trying to think about in the first place. Writing let’s us see the course and speed of our thoughts. We need this. Without it, we’re at the mercy of very real limits on our attention span in a life full of distractions. Writing, without doubt, is a field of play, a place where thinking happens and understanding grows. The act of writing is the, yes painful, act we force ourselves into because we have no other choice. Response to the initial irritation urging our response, is not optional.

We begin to write, somehow. How do we do that? That’s like saying, how do we swim? We swim by swimming. It gets easier the longer we do it. After many years, it’s easier to begin, and more productive. In any case, we read our writing as we write it. We evaluate what we say and how we say it. We ask, does it have a point? Is it creating a picture worth seeing? Is it going somewhere? We get angry with ourselves when we do it poorly. It’s not anger for mistakes in grammar. It’s anger that the motivating irritation is not well addressed, that our thought has not taken adequate form in response. It’s only when the response is adequate that we’ve written well. It means we’ve thought well.

We can say with absolute certainty that writing is a medium within which thinking happens and understanding grows.

III

The medium of Drawing.

This may be hard for most people to believe, but, talk these days about drawing, in certain professions, in design and construction professions for example — or: in the domain of software development that provides tools for certain professions, which is to say, on the periphery of certain professions  —  talk of drawing as something of a certain value, to be understood for it’s particular function, this kind of talk induces a great deal of outrage. The attitude is not uniform. There are many people in the software industry who appreciate the discussion, people who’d like to carry it forward and see what it can bring to the future of software and media itself. But such people, so far, set themselves up as outcasts, outcast anyway, not from the professions, but outcast from a certain class of software aficionado. Within the actual professions (architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, industrial design) the situation is reversed: drawings are highly valued. I’m going to talk about why.

But it’s important to admit, that an interest in drawings marks you, among that former class, as a kind of a cretin. Deformed and mentally handicapped because of congenital deficiency is on the mild end of it. Once I was told I “have a worms-eye view” (of the situation). Elsewhere, I was offered (in email) the following test of verbal reasoning ability:

  • esoteric is to toilet, as purple is to what?  (esoteric : toilet = purple : X)

Indeed I’m full of it.

I was asked to moderate a panel discussion at a technology conference a few years ago (2014). A question came about drawings. The panel gave me the microphone, so I talked about what drawing is, functionally. There is a certain set of distinctive, and very basic, things going on in the act of drawing, that are not going on in the act of modeling. And this should be understood. It’s worth taking some time thinking about what you’re doing when you set out to make a drawing, or a set of drawings, what you’re accomplishing by doing that.

If you look at anything in the world that’s familiar, like drawing, (or like a chair) and you try to understand it in a fresh way, and in a functional way, if you try to see what a thing is by looking at what it does, then you’re in philosophical territory. Then you’ll be told that the best thing for anyone attempting philosophy is to be strapped to a pole in the town square and lashed. I heard that one too, yes!

So my 60 seconds of philosophizing on the panel met the whip. Someone, who apparently just walked past the room just as I talked, entered, sat down, then yelled,

“I just can’t believe, at a tech conference, after all these years, that we’re STILL, talking about drawings!”

Wow! Such passion!

Drawing has a function, a unique one. The need for that function will continue whether or not this fact makes you angry.

My interest in drawing goes back about 10 years. I mean, my particular (peculiar) interest in it. I was a draftsman for years before that, and before that educated in Architecture, which includes study of drawing, and also modeling, constant companions as they are. These were just things that I did, though, and I had no real interest in them other than as things that needed to be done well, and that I was paid for.

Later I found some real respect for them. For some reason I became more curious. But it wasn’t really fondness for drawing that got me thinking about drawing. It was just work I had to do. People are just not wired, generally, to pay close attention to things around them that are ordinary and familiar. Such things become like air. We don’t notice them really, and we certainly don’t ask basic questions about them, like: What are they?

What got me thinking seriously, one day, finally, about drawing, actually, was modeling. I worked at architecture firms. Specifically, firms that were enthusiastic about digital 3D modeling of their building projects. At some point after about 10 years of doing this, professional digital modeling, something changed for me. Before the change I’d been a fanboy (yes) of modeling, of modeling software, of software companies, of tech conferences, of tech white papers, articles, of people who champion modeling, of evangelists proclaiming the end of drawing!

And I believed all of it!

Sort of.

The end of drawing nagged me. Much as I dreaded the months-long labor of producing a set of drawings, I just didn’t buy that we could toss the whole thing out, move past it, model everything and forget about drawing altogether. Something seemed missing, to me, from that story. I’ll discuss what’s missing, in part IV. Until then, look, these guys have some things to say about drawing:

Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)

‘Let whoever may have attained to so much as to have the power of drawing know that he holds a great treasure.’

Wassilly Kandinsky (1866 – 1944)

‘Drawing instruction is a training towards perception, exact observation and exact presentation not of the outward appearances of an object, but of its constructive elements, its lawful forces-tensions, which can be discovered in given objects and of the logical structures of same-education toward clear observation and clear rendering of the contexts, whereby surface phenomena are an introductory step towards the three-dimensional.’

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)

‘Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence.’

Spencer Frederick Gore (1878 – 1914)

‘By drawing, man has extended his ability to see and comprehend what he sees.’

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)

‘Drawing is a kind of hypnotism: one looks in such a way at the model, that he comes and takes a seat on the paper.’

And don’t forget to see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams:

IV

There is an interesting short book with some Picasso drawings and the following remark:

plain-bullPicasso’s work – just plain bull.”

In 1945 through 1946, Pablo Picasso produced a powerful series of drawings of bulls. When you arrange his bulls in order of detail the most detailed is a realistic drawing of a bull. All the features are there. Then, in a series of 18 drawings, Picasso step by step simplifies the previous image. The shading of the hide vanishes. The details of the muscle disappear. The texture is gone. The three-dimensionality evaporates. By the 18th bull, we see a line drawing – a simple image consisting of 10 curves and 2 ovals. But those 12 marks distill the essence of that bull – its strength and masculinity. The clutter is gone; the essence remains.

This final image was the only one in the series that Picasso entitled the bull. By systematically cutting peripheral parts (being careful not to turn the bull into a cow), we force ourselves to appreciate what’s important. Isolating those elements can give a great deal of focus…” – Edward B. Burger / Michael Starbird

There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” – Pablo Picasso

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 4.14.19 PM

Recall Spencer Frederick Gore (1878 – 1914):

‘By drawing, man has extended his ability to see and comprehend what he sees.’

That’s very clear, Gore’s single sentence; it gets right to a very significant point. But there’s something in it we can emphasize.

Consider two things:

  • a real bull (a live one, in the real world, in “3D”, living, breathing, sweating)
  • “The Bull” (Picasso’s)

Does one of these make sense without the other? Start with Picasso’s drawing. Does Picasso’s drawing, “The Bull”, make sense if there are no real bulls? If they don’t exist and never did exist?

The non-esoteric answer is: No.

The point is one of interdependency. There are real things, things as they are, and there are the ways that we see those things. For us, these two essential things are completely interdependent. It is necessary to have both.

Let’s check in the other direction. Do real bulls make sense (to us), without Picasso’s drawing? Again the answer is indisputable: No. It doesn’t have to be Picasso’s conceptualization of the bull; the question is not literal, it is: does a bull make sense to us without some kind of conceptual simplification that we make?

No.

A real bull is too much to grasp, both physically, and in terms of our comprehension of the animal as a whole. We can’t conceive of the bull in its very complex entirety. Instead we simplify it. We don’t survey and map it in every aspect. Doing so exceeds our cognitive capacity (and is impossible). Instead we prioritize and simplify. We build a representation, mental, or in some medium, of what matters (to us). So for example, if we see a bull in the real world, we build a mental representation that includes the following features:

  • large
  • heavy
  • horns
  • near or far from me?
  • danger
  • is there a barrier between me and the bull?
  • has it noticed me?
  • does it care?
  • is it approaching me?
  • what are its intentions?
  • can I get away?

We’d probably notice its general shape/form too and it’s color. We may recognize it as “a bull”. We are all, always, doing what Picasso did. We narrow focus to the essence of things, to understand them, because things as they are, are too much to grasp.

This is true also for high-fidelity models of things in the virtual world. Indeed the higher the fidelity to the real world, the more we are dependent on simplified representations for understanding.

Continuing with this point then:

  1. we can’t understand real things, whole things
  2. we must narrow to simplified essence to understand real things

And, (2) makes no sense without (1), and (1) makes no sense without (2).

This is why we’re still talking about drawing. But, more importantly, with this simple recognition we’ve hit on something essential about the nature of thinking itself. Thinking (and understanding), not only involves, but essentially is, a bouncing back and forth between (1) and (2), a ping-ponging between things as they are, and simplified essential representations, between wide environmental whole, and the act of narrowing focus.

Between these is where thinking happens and understanding grows.

V

You’ll want to click on this article “Unavoidable Nuisances”: August Komendant, Louis I. Kahn, and the Difficult Relationship between Building Design and Engineering and scroll to the bottom of the page where you see these two images:

Louis I. Kahn and August Komendant (two Estonians, I just learned from the article) designed this building, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth Texas, completed in 1972. A pure delight I’ve walked through many times.

The photo brings back memory of it. Recall walking through the museum if you’ve been there. Notice that if you could walk through a virtual reality model of the same building, the VR experience would be similar to walking around the museum in real life. Of course there are very important differences between real life and VR, really major differences. And I’m tempted to discuss many of those differences at length, but I won’t. The differences are less important than the similarities. And you’re familiar with the differences anyway. The primary similarity is that in both VR and real world, the Kimbell Museum is experienced spatially; you walk around in it. Or you move through it in some manner; you could fly lotus-style on a magic carpet through it if you like. The point is that it’s spatial, and therefore you can move through it. So, though a model and the real thing are different things, in the most primary way, those two things are alike.

The drawing on the other hand (the image to the left of the photo above) is another thing altogether, a completely different kind of thing, lacking any kind of primary similarity with either the real world or a virtual simulation of the real world.

What alien thing is this then?

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.26.45 AM
drawing

Kahn and Komendant are communicating something, to themselves and each other, and to others, in drawings like this one, something that they cannot well communicate in models, not in any kind of model:

  • a physical model, of which they built many
  • a digital model
  • the real thing in the real world

What they are communicating, in drawing, specifically, the kinds of things that drawings are used to communicate, I’ll discuss. This is something that can be discussed. There is a basic nature to the kinds of things that are communicated through drawing. And these basic things can be generalized, named, categorized. But I’m going to talk about that tomorrow in part VI of this article. Tonight I just add a couple more examples and leave the question open.

But one last remark before the fun examples; notice this:

This drawing above and all drawings like it cannot be understood, and indeed make no sense whatsoever, unless both the person drawing it and the person viewing it imagine the drawing in-situ within a mental model of the spatial whole of the building (or other kind of thing if not a building). There is, when drawing, always a mental leap from the drawing into the spatial whole.

If you think about this, it’s difficult to imagine a case where this is not so. And though some minor exceptions could be presented, the truth of it carries: there is an interplay, a back and forth, a mental ping-ponging between drawing (whether you’re the one drawing, or the one reading the drawing), and modeling (whether the model is mental, physical, digital, or real).

There is a great set on this page of really excellent photos of the Kimbell museum, and of drawings and physical models of the same produced by Louis Kahn and August Komandant. Do click the link and enjoy! Included on the page is this drawing:

Kahn-Komandante drawing of Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1972

This is an outstanding example that makes the point. There is a great deal of very essential communication made here by this drawing, very concisely. And this is the problem. For anyone familiar with producing drawings of this type, and who also is familiar with the production of digital 3D models of projects like this, this drawing makes you laugh out loud while crying tears of suffering and pain, with the memory of what it takes, if you model these things today for a living, to model the whole of a project in such a way that the whole of a model contains the same quantity of information that is conveyed here very clearly, and concisely, unambiguously, and without doubt. Without, that is, and this is fundamentally important: without doubt that anywhere in this drawing, that what should be shown, is shown, and that someone qualified to determine this fitness, has done so, determined it.

The scope of work required to even attempt to approach this level of clarity, and to do so unfailingly throughout the whole of the space of an entire 3D digital model, well that is another kind of undertaking altogether. And it is unachievable. The lack of time and manpower resources is only part of the problem. If you have the skill and the time to model at that level, not just in some parts of a model, but throughout all of it (I mean, you don’t have the time; no one ever does), but even if you did, there is still the vexing unsolvable problem that you don’t have any means or method within the model of telling someone where in the model you’ve achieved the required completeness, and where, maybe, you haven’t. But it’s not only that you have no means of communicating that to others; it’s also that you really have no way of tracking the status of it yourself. The problem is fundamentally one of scope and the cognitive limits of the human mind. There’s simply too much, too much information, too much stuff.

And there are too many distractions. We have to go to the bathroom. We have to get coffee. We have to eat lunch. We have to answer the phone. We have to answer emails. We have to take breaks. We have to go home at night. We have to think all day. We have to ask ourselves 6 times a minute: Am I even doing the right thing? Is this design a train wreck or are we going in the right direction? What is the client going to think? Is my family going to be disappointed because I’m working on this again all hours of the day and night? When is the last time I saw my child for more than 15 minutes? Can I wait another month for new tires on my car? Should I get a second dog? Am I getting fat? How many more months until this project is done? What about the owner’s budget? Is the roof going to leak? Am I detailing this right? Will it fall down? Will maintenance cost a fortune? Is my professional reputation going to be ruined by this project? Am I taking too long to get the model done? Are we going to miss the deadline for the client meeting next week? Is our office going to go out of business? Will we find another client?

That’s just a fraction of it. How is someone supposed to keep in mind not only a complete mental picture of the entirety of a project model, assisted by a digital model of the same, but also keep track of the quality/completeness status of the entire digital model, everywhere, throughout the entire space of the model, without using some kind of device like a set of drawings, or not like a set of drawings, but actually a set of drawings? (which accomplish precisely this tracking function)

More on the functions well served by drawing in section VI. Having been the self-inflicted victim of this myself for many years working as a professional modeler and drafter, this is the stuff that makes you laugh and cry (mostly cry), and that mostly you keep to yourself. After all, you’re the guru of 3D modeling; how could you admit a problem with the whole premise? We’ll come back to that. For now I need a break. Enjoy these beauties, and notice while looking at these that your mind jumps, back and forth, ping-ponging between drawing and modeling. Let yourself ping-pong. It’s there in the ping-ponging that thinking happens and understanding grows.

From the blog, Arquitecta d’Armonía:

tumblr_nxzizplszK1tfm7tro1_1280tumblr_nxzizplszK1tfm7tro2_400tumblr_nxzizplszK1tfm7tro3_1280

 

I'm writing this in parts, Part 6 to follow

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