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Digital culture has made alien worlds familiar and the familiar world alien

I wanted to go wandering inside computers like Jeff Bridges did in Tron, writes Rory Olcayto

Nineties techno culture ruled my life. I read cyberpunk novels. I’d go to happenings where connecting to the internet was part of the show. And I went clubbing every week and danced to electronic music that sounded like the future in the same way Oasis and Blur didn’t.

For much of that decade I was an architecture student and for my postgraduate studies I did a Masters in computer-aided building design. I wanted to learn how to make buildings and objects in virtual space. I wanted to go wandering inside computers like Jeff Bridges did in Tron (pictured). Peter Zumthor, who everyone else was getting into then, didn’t interest me. I wanted real skills. New skills. Skills I would be among the first in the world to acquire. Computer graphics was the real avant-garde. That was plain to see. My tutors didn’t agree. Some were horrified. ‘Why, Rory? Why? You’re taking the wrong path.’

But it was the right path for me. It led to a job in the videogames industry. I designed entire cities. Created vast, alien landscapes. Modelled hi-tech vehicles that used magnetic field propulsion drives. I even pitched my own games. One of them was optioned by Sega. Angry Planet: a racing game set on Mars that used real topographical data of the Martian surface to generate the landscapes.

Tron

I met loads of interesting people from all sort of backgrounds: fine art, sound engineering, software design, graphic design, web design, product design. My boss’s PhD was on how to replicate the effect of oil paint using computer graphics. I worked with an animator who designed Spawn’s cloak in the Hollywood movie of the comic book star. His speciality was rendering the movement of fabric materials using Alias Wavefront. We made games for the Sony Playstation. We played games during work hours - all in the name of research. There was a pinball machine in the lobby. The money was better than architecture, too. ‘That’s why,’ I told my tutors when I’d go back to my school for end of year shows. That’s why.

But it wasn’t the only reason why. Yes, I landed a dream job, and was well paid for doing it, but by studying for the Masters in computer-aided building design I got to write a thesis, too. I wanted to write something that would encompass all emerging computer technologies I was interested in and how I saw them intersecting with space, buildings, cities, places. That wouldn’t have been possible had I followed the traditional architecture route.

The result was Digital Planet: The Computerized Environment, 20,000 words on architecture and urban design, Hollywood and pop culture, warfare and crime, and the emergence of the World Wide Web. One chapter, (number 7 of 10) entitled The Shape of Things to Come, drew parallels between computer networks and urban railways, how they connect people and places, and how in their own way they shape the spaces we inhabit by allowing us to glimpse aspects of each other’s lives.

These memories came flooding back when my friend and colleague Ian Martin recently tweeted: ‘Twitter’s like being in a slow-moving train through a city, getting tiny glimpses through peoples’ back windows into alien lives… wondering what it must be like to be in that life and realising you can never know. Sometimes a tweet makes you realise how distant … we are from one another. I just read “Making aïoli with the Arcade Fire in the background.” and thought “No. That’s just … no.”’
It took Ian just 65 words to say the same thing I needed a whole bloody chapter for. Bastard.

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