Computers think differently than humans, if you can call it “thinking” at all. Computers process, and they do so in binary form: yes or no, on or off, this or that. We don’t see the behind-the-scenes machinations of the machine. The interfaces we do see on a daily basis obscure the actual computation, and for good reason. Apps, websites, and digital products would be unusable without some kind of abstracted gloss and simplification.
That hasn’t stopped Kim Albrecht from peering behind the curtain. In his trippy new project, Distinction Machine, the information designer looks at what happens when a computer is presented with an unsolvable problem, and in the process reveals how strange and beautiful a computer’s internal logic can be.
Albrecht’s experiment comes in the form of an interactive website that asks people to complete the simple task of overlaying two squares on top of each other. As you scroll downwards on the page, blue and magenta squares slide towards each other, merging into a single form. When they’re positioned directly on top of each other, the squares begins to glitch out, creating an almost ombre pattern of blue-greens and pink-purples. Computers, unlike humans, can’t make a judgement on which which color to display; rather the graphics card simply follows the command and displays both colors at the same time. “The computer doesn’t register cyan or magenta,” Albrecht writes, “But displays a pattern of conflict.”
In technical terms, what you’re seeing is called “Z-fighting,” a glitch-like phenomenon in which a computer processing 3D information at the same coordinates tries to display them on a 2D screen. You’ve probably experienced Z-fighting while playing a video game where your character butts up against an immovable wall and a jittery, ghost-like effect takes over the screen. That visual dissonance is precisely what Albrecht is interested in showing with his series of images and gifs. “I’m interested in demystifying the digital a little bit,” he says.
In philosophical terms, Albrecht’s visualizations are an exploration of the age old question of, do we shape technology or does it shape us? His images prove that the digital world is mediated by rules and limitations that most of us never think about. “Computers are marketed as universal and unrestricted which allow for infinite creativity,” he says. “I’m arguing that this is not true and that these systems actively shape how we see and act in the world.”
In the process, Albrecht has stumbled onto a distinctly computational aesthetic driven by a computer’s inability to deal with ambiguity and nuance. The blurs, static, and smears are the opposite of what we encounter with the pristine interfaces on ours phone or computers. And despite the complexity of Albrecht’s images, they’re result of choices, precision, and simplification.
Albrecht’s visual experiments show that when presented with certain forms of complexity like presenting these two squares in the same location, computers fall into a weirdo middle land where the result is far less polished and glossy. It looks like glitch art, but it’s not, if only because the Distinction Machine isn’t a glitch at all. “It’s not a glitch because it’s not an error,” Albrecht explains. “It’s just the graphics card doing the thing it’s designed to do.”