Over the course of history, the meanings of buildings have repeatedly been expanded and altered via the creation of technologically driven information realms. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, the new technology of the photographic camera added informational supplements to the built world not previously known. With greater visual verisimilitude and more popular reach than drawings, photographic images constructed off-site, mediated zones of built and urban appearance, situated not on streets but atop streets on billboards, inside of buildings on gallery walls and, most of all, on printed texts. Since their inception photographic images have recorded the vagaries of the modern built condition, and highlighted what the human eye does not normally notice.
In the twentieth century, the influence on architectural understanding of this “visioning technology” was catapulted into even more distant and disembodied information realms through digital technologies. This has taken multiple forms. Satellite imagery, following the trend set by aerial photography, has vaulted human perception to points of distance people had previously only dreamed about. Computation, by contrast, has constructed a portable zone of calculation, memorization, and storage that has amplified the human mind into a societal brain – a garden of mathematically derived outlooks.
Satellite imagery offers faraway views that picture buildings within larger urban and natural contexts that help detect the traces of vanished structures, and provide a digital framework for imaginings of ideal, future cities. In linked grids, they constitute the foundation for the interactive and virtual photographic explorations common on websites such as Google Earth. By contrast, the digital camera phone in conjunction with photo-sharing websites has unleashed a flood of picture taking, sharing and viewing that in turn has yielded an enormous database available for computational analysis. The millions of uploaded pictures are accompanied by metadata – geographic location, time of upload, tag-name of photo – which can be mined algorithmically by computer scientists to uncover the proclivities and itineraries of the general public. Taking on these two distinct aspects of how new digital technologies have influenced our creation, perception, and use of images we previously defined simply as “photographs” – and their influence on our reading of the spaces and places we inhabit – this paper selects just two of the various strands of this new phase of digital photographic imaging. It does so in the belief that these two particular, if unrelated phenomena, reveal their own particular insights into how the digital image may today, interact with our conceptualization of architectural forms and urban spaces.