On the Limits of Techno-Conceptualization

One of the interesting things I’ve learned from working in the 3D scanning/digitization industry is that typically the most precious, fragile, ephemeral and transitory things are the most difficult to capture. Included in this set of things which evade capture are such things like fluids whether liquid, gas, or plasmic, with transparent, glassy and/or highly reflective properties, hairs, fibers and delicate vegetation like flowers, to name just a few.

Now it’s not completely impossible to produce (at a merely useful level) a non-simulated static virtual representation of some of these things at a given instant of their existence, but it does take a lot more resources in terms of time, energy and labor-power to produce a model at a high degree of fidelity. Above all it takes a greater deal of care and planning: in contrast to objects which are easier to scan because you can force the object to adhere to the pre-structured scanning apparatus, delicate objects force the reverse where you cannot help but to adhere to their limits and often need to re-structure your scanning apparatus to their own peculiar demands.

I tend to see the scanning/digitization process as a higher-order instantiation of the process of conceptualization but which operates on a technological rather than merely cognitive level. It entails construing the object as something which abides in a 3-dimensional cartesian phase space where the objects are typically defined in the classical way of dividing entities into their “primary” and “secondary” qualities: the geometrical and topological structure of the object is defined independently of its surface properties like color, translucency/opacity, reflectivity, etc. Sometimes you can even include a 4th dimensional temporal axis which is typically defined as a series of different static states of the object to produce the appearance of transformation over time. The amount of information that is condensed within these 4 dimensions constitutes the final resolution of the object.

The efficacy of this form of abstraction starts to break down when dealing with the more evasive sorts of objects I mentioned above, precisely because they are better understood as dynamic processes rather than static entities. With things like moving fluids or glass substances, it is much harder to abstract “primary” from “secondary” properties. For example, the visual difference between the color of the droplets/waves of a water splash and its spatial form is hard to distinguish, at the very least because its color consists of reflections and refractions of the surrounding environment. So the evasive object is not only a dynamic process but the very nature of its properties cannot be so easily isolated from the network of relationships within which it is embedded, yet the possibility of isolating an object from its environment is a necessary prerequisite for digitization!

Taking these difficulties into account, it is no surprise that for many of these sorts of entities/processes it is much easier and cheaper to just simulate them entirely virtually; with simulations you typically reference general aesthetic and mathematical principles derived from real life observations but typically the simulation has no real correspondence to a physically existing correlate.

Overall I take two insights from this inquiry:

1. The fact that abstraction breaks down when trying to techno-conceptually capture dynamic and fluctuating processes highlights the ultimately arbitrary nature of ALL forms of techno-conceptual capture. When you only try to capture relatively simple and passive things, you could easily make the mistaken assumption that the physical properties you digitally represent are self-existent properties of objects-in-themselves rather than merely being the results of a highly selective and deliberate process of capture. Trying and failing to capture things which actively evade capture challenges this assumption.

2. Attempting to capture things which evade capture shouldn’t push you to try harder beyond a reasonable degree, it should make you realize the futility of trying in the first place. This is not to say we should aim to cease techno-conceptualization entirely, but to merely point out that we remain faithful to an object only to the degree that is necessary to fulfill an ulterior function as part of a more encompassing practical program. Techno-conceptualization is a skillful means to the higher end of fulfilling some practical need, and is not an end in itself. Even when we are ostensibly practicing techno-conceptualization in itself for itself, what we are really doing is fulfilling the need to get better at it, which invariably ends up being bound up in a larger interest to fulfill other needs which cannot be fulfilled by techno-conceptualization alone.

[1] FARO laser arm scanner
[2] Autodesk Maya fluid simulation

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