generative code

Engineering God Mode



Take a sip of this Kool-Aid, and you might be convinced a wave of new technological innovation is upon us:

With  advances in the fields of mobile computing and data processing there is now the potential for a new kind of programming to transform the way human beings identify, exhibit, and explore themselves, and the companies, organizations, and nations they populate.

This is the advent of an evolutionary moment which will be brought on by a new kind of coder/designer. These creative engineers are quietly advancing a new computer language that is best described as object-based, or “generative,” code. And while they are well-known in the tech/design field, Silicon Valley technologists and the investor class are almost universally unaware of them.  

We shouldn’t be surprised.

Like most scientific and technological communities on the verge of paradigm shift, the Valley’s thought and investment leaders have no idea what is coming next. They are too busy trying to benefit from the current status quo, which they have essentially created. And, as Thomas Kuhn noted in his Theory of Scientific Revolutions:

Almost always [those] who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.

And, as we have learned, old paradigms die hard.


| towards a generative code platform |

What is object-based generative code? Put simply, it’s code that dynamically generates and morphs ‘objects’ through a system of inputs which are either controlled by the viewer (directed), or from external sources (passive). So, at its most sophisticated levels, these are programs that animate objects through live data flows; such as bio-signals, stock market indices, sonic beats, language in text messages, weather changes, and geo-locational signals. The people who write this code are described as computational designers, or, as I know them: code artists.

To give you an example of how generative code works: check out the video below, which is a process demo by visionary code artist Reza Ali of a generative app he designed that he describes as “interactive (and) audio-reactive.”

The key here is that the dynamic motion and mutations are responding to live audio signals. This is music + code = free-form object mutation.

Josh Nimoy is another elite computational designer. He was hired by director Joe Kosinski to write code that generated special effects for TRON Legacy (design-directed by my ORA partner GMUNK), considered one of the most stunning achievements in modern GFX. Below is an excerpt of some of the code he wrote for that project:


| tech rev 2.0 |

With advances in the collection, processing, and analysis of data, we have turned a civilizational corner. We can now make sense of a multitudinous system of decisions, and their tethered outcomes, which in the past, were far too complex, and seemingly chaotic, for us to extract any tangible benefit.

That is huge, in evolutionary terms. You can’t truly change anything, either on an individual, institutional, or global level, unless you can ‘objectify’ (or ‘see’) the entity that needs changing. It’s the cornerstone of all healing and personal transformation programs.

It’s called the overview effect. Or, in tech terms, God mode.

But this won’t happen if we limit our work to capitalizing and developing those systems that manipulate and control the data flows to return the most banal, and insidious, behavioral insights.

If we unleash deep data and develop technologies that allow it to signal to us the hidden intelligence in our human, geological, and financial etc. systems, it will bestow a new level of self-awareness and self-knowledge upon our civilization. This means learning to see the hidden messages in the data, instead of writing code that gives us pre-determined outcomes demanded by a myopic, and essentially mercenary, market.

But we also need to develop a set of tools to communicate that intelligence to us. And those will come in the form of generative visualizations: computational objects, environments, and, eventually, worlds, that take complex and seemingly unrelated data flows and aggregate them into “sense-making” technologies.

Evolutionary, paradigm shifting applications that finally free us from the poison pill of human governance that has kept us in the shadow of our true potential. No longer can decisions — political, economic, medical, military, social — be made based on human whims, caprice, biases, or opinions… but, rather, from the nexus of billions of lines of data which can point us to optimal behaviors.

This could revolutionize the way the World Bank lends money. How medicine is priced and distributed in developing world markets. How we develop an accurate and up-to-the-minute reporting mechanism on our survival as a species.

How is it that we are not already making this the most critical objective of our massively endowed technology sector?

Because most of its leaders are stuck in rigid economic systems and ossified ways of seeing.  I know because I spend a lot of time talking to investors and technologists who are rooted in the old paradigm. They cannot not grasp, nor visualize, an infrastructural shift away from text-based computing. They don’t know what generative coding is, how it works, or that there is even the possibility of mapping live data into dynamic objects.

Not surprising, considering the vast amount of capital the major VCs, and the market in general, has invested in text-based social networks and search platforms.


| the next dimension of big data |

Ironically, if Silicon Valley is slow to catch on, the mainstream public is increasingly aware of the kind of future that awaits through generative systems. That’s because the biggest source of funding for these code art projects comes from Hollywood and the motion picture industry. Films like Minority Report, TRON: Legacy, and Prometheus have plot lines that prominently feature generative code-driven holograms and UI/UX interfaces. The design departments for these films, which create functioning tech, are budgeted in the tens of millions of dollars. Yet the technology sector is comparatively underfunded when it comes to engineering a future that is both beautiful and utilitarian.

                                        > Prometheus hologram

                                        > Prometheus hologram


Cities and countries would no longer be depicted solely by their geographic dimensions, but as dimensional objects, formed by all of the data that is flowing out of them. Companies’ online representations would no longer be 2D websites, but rather explorable worlds woven together by the data of the people, performance metrics, and products that they have been built upon. Doctors would no longer have to double as high-level statisticians to read the reams of graphs and numbers that run off their various tech. Instead, they and their patients will view heart and other bodily system status through actionable, bio-mimicked visualizations.

But the killer app, for me, of this evolutionary thrust resides in the social networks and digital identity.

With a new “sky layer” — a data visualization platform which sits atop the social and search realms, powered by generative code — users of Facebook and Twitter would not longer be compartmentalized in some post-Tower of Babel reality in which they are unable to viscerally communicate with anyone outside of their linguistic group.

Instead, they’d experience a dimensional realm, coded in a universal, object-based language in which their ‘profiles’ and identities are based on their biographical and moment-to-moment data.

There is a growing sense that this evolution in computing needs to happen. Human beings must create technologies that harness, alchemize, and output their data so that we can get a view of our world and the impact our moment-to-moment actions have on it.

After all, self-knowledge is the essence of human identity, and the next technological revolution must offer unprecedented opportunities for us to know ourselves, and our world, as we never have.


[Stephen Marshall is the co-founder and product lead for ORA, a Seattle/London-based start-up innovating in the realm of dimensional data visualization, and portfolio company of the DataElite accelerator.]