Currently reading

Weekend Gems 007

June 14, 2020

From everything to a pixel and back at everything again.

Before everything else—

When studying in UC Berkeley, I was lucky enough to find myself in classes with wonderfully restless minds—one of them is Bz Zhang who is back at it again, this time co-organizing an anti-racism design resources document, accessible here. This straightforward, no-bullshit list is a great resource if you are looking for firms that are currently matching donations and offering pro bono services, good reads such as Adhmed Ansari’s ‘What Does it Mean to Decolonize Design?’ and other non exhaustive sub-lists of active black designers and black-led firms like the wonderful studio SUMO and SPACE INDUSTRIES.

The new POOL Issue ‘SIMULATION’ is here and, you can either purchase the print copy here OR you can donate $25 or more to a US-based anti-racism organization of your choice and get a complimentary PDF of the issue (where you can also find my essay ‘Architecture in the Age of the Informated Space’ *blink blink*). Send your receipt and a note requesting a PDF issue to pool@aud.ucla.edu with the subject line “PDF Donation.”

And now that we took the time to appreciate some no-bullshit initiatives, let’s move on.

The Everything Manifesto

On Thursday, following a rather weird path, I ended up in a page called iam-internet.com.

The first thing I did when I looked at the url, was to type “internet.com” on my browser because, admittedly, ‘iam-internet’ sounds a lot like the team wanted desperately to be named just ‘internet’ but the domain was already taken. Apparently not only is it taken but it is heavily underused and its value is estimated at $1,107,000 which, if you are a sane person, you just don’t consider bargaining for.

Anyway, moving on.

The moment you land on iam-internet, you will probably think that it is yet another pretentious website from designers (we are the worst, I know. Especially us who think we can effectively merge critical theory and tech—we make ourselves pretty obvious by relentlessly quoting ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ at any given chance and using “The Cloud” in our texts as if the world is reading about it for the first time. I am guilty of both).

However, there is something interesting about this site: the main project, called “The Everything Manifesto”, starts by asking the reader to reflect on what a billion seconds is. Of course you will not be able to do that successfully in the beginning, the information will probably brush you off like any other thing you have read online the past few days. At least that happened to me, but as the text unfolds, you soon start actually engaging with this thought—but through different routes.

My phone told me today that last week I spent 2h on average on my phone daily. I thought I was doing pretty poorly until IAM told me that the average person spends 5 hours more than I do—that is 7 hours gazing at a screen, usually filled up with ads and cat videos. Mind you, both of these things generate revenue on clicks or pageloads per seconds, a value extracted purely from 7 hours of gazing at specific pixels multiplied by approximately 4 billion people every single day. If you had a hard time considering what 1 billion seconds amounts to 1 minute ago, you will definitely have a hard time understanding the economy behind what I just wrote. Hint: it’s many, many internet.coms.

At least I do. What I cannot do, however, is align myself with movements such as The Shift Project, calling for digital sobriety, or with research groups that call out Bitcoin and the AI industry for their ginormous carbon footprints. Why? Not because I do not agree with their goals and motives (far, far, far from that) but because I really struggle with grasping the ginormous scale of the megastructures they are opposing or examining; it takes some good effort to sync my mind with the emergency behind their calls for action. Even calling them ‘megastructures’ here can be highly misleading; Facebook, for example, could be thought of as a network (which, at this point, is a term at the same level of vagueness with ‘cloud’) but at the same time it is a series of much real events with equally heavy impacts, supported by a vast, global infrastructure of actual, palpable stuff, perpetuated by obscure economic models, affecting entire populations. Calling it simply a ‘social network’ is straight up misleading.

Parenthesis: if you wanna read more about the infrastructure that sustains this phantasmagoria, go read Ingrid Burrington’s work. She is an overall amazing human being who I had the chance to hear live last year at BCNM’s ‘Hacking Politics’symposium and then just devoured her writing.

Talking about the power of scales is a beloved hobby of designers and, most importantly, architects. I am pretty sure everyone in architecture school watched the Powers of Ten (1977) by the Eames power couple at some point as a student.

This project is extremely famous for a reason: it was truly ground breaking to realize in the late 70s that

technological breakthroughs of the time massively contributed to a radical shift in our perception of ‘the everything’, through the unlocking of scales existing at the periphery of our reality.

Today, this periphery is expanding exponentially and we are living in a ‘pervasive everywhere’. The idea of this ‘pervasive everywhere’ has been troubling me for the past two years as it is almost like a design paradox on its own, generated by the deepest cores of the philosophy of design itself. Chaotic at its scale, it is both vast—an accumulation of self-populating ideas and inventions that are operating as a unified mass, growing exponentially—and terribly minuscule; the next gem provides just one example of the immense power of just a single pixel.

The issue of scale is the underlying theme of ‘The Everything Manifesto’ but the Manifesto itself is far from flawless. Using the term “post-technological prayer” un-ironically is a huge ‘no’, regardless of the circumstances, context or audience you are facing. On a slightly more serious note though, presenting vague ideas disguised as ‘call for actions’ without presenting some actual actions, kind of defeats the purpose of the manifesto to begin with. Additionally, it is also very dangerous to perpetually use vague pompous statements such as ‘design for plurality’ without backing them up with actual propositions because at some point people will get really bored of stuff like that and will not pay attention to anything we designers say—if that has not already happened, that is.

Anyway, my goal here is not to present a summary of the manifesto; it is a text that you may choose to ignore or read (and if you do so, put some effort in overlooking the standard meta- catchphrases thrown here and there). My advice is to go in with a critical mind, be patient when pompous declarations like ‘let’s go beyond solutionism’ are casually being thrown around, and pick one idea that resonates with you, even in the slightest. Once you are holding it, go after it with full force; look for it in other places online, listen to what other people have to say about it, and most importantly, listen to what other people have to say against it.

And then you can always listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson reading Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot while listening to Moby’s LA8.Admittedly though, they have a tight Vimeo channel.

Unsupported color spaces

And now that we have distanced ourselves enough so to contemplate the vastness of a billion seconds and look at the entire Earth and see just a dot, let’s zoom in on a pixel.

Some time last year, Gaurav Agrawal took a nice picture of the Glacier National Park in Montana and uploaded it on Flickr. Decent photo, your usual nature-lover sunset and mountains snap, nothing strange there. Then Android 10 users downloaded it, attempted to set it as their home backgrounds and their phones crashed.Apparently, before uploading it on Flickr, Agrawal edited the photo in Lightroom and exported the photo using an extra-wide HDR color space (why do that if you are going to just upload it on Flickr? Nobody knows, moving on). However, what happened was that Android 10’s built-in color rendering engine could not properly display the photo’s larger color space so when the phone would try to display the image, it would boot loop and repeatedly restart until a factory data reset was performed.More specifically, what happened in Lightroom was that the photo was encoded in a special color space called Google/Skia/E3CADAB7BD3DE5E3436874D2A9DEE126 whereas usually, the images we use are encoded in the all familiar and much easier to say out loud color space sRGB, practically meaning that each pixel you see right on on your screen at this very moment is a combination of red, green and blue values. Note here that the total amount of these colors cannot exceed the number 255. The exact formula is this one:

0.2126 * red + 0.7152 * green + 0.0722f * blue

To top this off, in all Android versions 10 and older, all images are automatically converted to sRGB. Yet there is a rare bug that, during this process, can lead to a calculation in the luminance of the pixels (aka color) that exceeds the maximum limit of 255. The bug is simple to explain however: Google rounds the numbers UP and, apparently, this image had ONE pixel where the calculation gave back these numbers:

red = 54.213, green = 182.376, blue = 18.411

Rounding up these numbers gives 55, 183 and 19, which in sum give 257.Now, after all this mumbo jumbo, take a minute to properly process what you just read: ONE SINGLE PIXEL, among the 4 millions displayed in the average android phone, managed to BREAK thousands of phones around the world just because its color exceeded the ‘color visual spectrum’ of a computer. No malicious wrong-doing, no elaborate malware designs, no digital steganography, no data-bending activities of any sorts. It only took your average, inoffensive, good-looking landscape photo and some innocent editing in Lightroom to bring down thousands of phones around the globe.If all of the above leave you completely unfazed, let’s relocate this scenario in a different context and hypothesize that each computer with a display has a similar flaw in the ways it calculates luminance: what if a similar photo was to be televised during the Pepsi Super Bowl halftime show? What if pewdiepie included a similar photo in one of his LMIAYs - or better yet, in one of his streams? What if, all of a sudden, a popular emoji was re-edited accordingly and started circulating the internet, phones boot looping one after the other and nobody suspecting that the cause was simply 🍆 ?

Bonus Round

Reading about the pixel story made me think of the Black Swan theory and then all of a sudden I found myself reading about Deep Fakes (completely unrelated but reminding myself about the godspeed progress of the Deep Fake technologies now and then is always a nice way to fuel my anxiety and boy do I love me some good dystopian speculations).Also, has anyone ever gone to Online Town?


And last, but definitely not least, if I am going to miss anything from the covid19 design orgasmic period, is randomly stumbling on projects like the ‘Micrashell’ by the Production Club.(Spoilers: it is a body suit that lets you vape and have sex at a club, thank you very much).