Saturday, April 11, 2009

vector screens

It's been a busy semester and will carry on so I thought it would make sense to add some posts snatched from things written over the last three months and currently winding their way through refereeing and editorial. The first is from a chapter for Oliver Grau's forthcoming collection "Gazing Into the 21st century"

Prediction, foreknowledge based on statistical aggregation, the enumeration of the enumerable: these have become the ingrained characteristics of the contemporary screen in all its manifestations.

All, that is, bar one: the oscilloscope screen technology utilised in early experiments in computer graphics by Ivan Sutherland, mentioned briefly in the opening pages of this chapter. Sutherland's vector screen, free from the obligation to scan the raster grid in clock time, remains an available technology still deployed in air-traffic control and scientific instrumentation. Its capacities have been ignored in the development of the Cartesian raster display. Yet the vector display is the natural way to display the vector graphics which increasingly constitute the central platform of object-oriented visualisation. The loss of vector screens in the age of vector graphics, and their replacement with codecs whose central innovation is new tools for making vectors visible on raster displays, suggests both a concrete avenue for 21st century technical innovation, and the kind of lacuna in innovation which may only be typical in situations where there is a diagrammatic or structural interchange, a homological assemblage, operating between key technologies like contemporary screens, and core values and processes of both economic and political life. The oscilloscope allows for the arbitrary. Unlike our common screens which have become attuned to the normative workings of the database economy, the vector screen is an expression of a freedom we have sensed, that we have imagined as potential, and which still lies unrealised in the storeroom of residual media. If technologies are articulations of social formations, then genuine innovation, or turning back to follow the road not taken, may well introduce us to a new way of imagining and realising alternative social formations. Perhaps this cannot be achieved with respect for the poor and for the ecosphere, but we know for a certainty that the road we did take has not benefitted either of them. It is time to set the vector free.

Alan Kay demonstrates Sketchpad on YouTube

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