Grid World

by Alexander Miller

When I was a kid, my dad gave me a piece of paper with a grid printed on it. It consisted of larger squares than standard graph paper, about an inch in size. It was basically a blank chessboard. The columns of the grid were labeled with letters (“A”, “B”, “C”, etc.), the rows labeled with numbers (“1”, “2”, “3”, ...). My dad then helped me draw a map of an imaginary island within the grid’s boundaries. I sketched the squiggly coastline of my island, forming a splattered blob shape, within which I added the obvious necessary features all mysterious islands require: forests of crudely draw trees, a mountain with a cave entrance leading to a secret underground network of caverns, an abandoned hut on the beach. There were variations of this game: sometimes the map was of a completely imaginary place, but other times we mapped a known area — like our backyard — and added fantastic elements.

My dad showed me how we could use the labeled rows and columns of the grid to address places of interest in our imagined islands: buried treasure was at square “B-4”, the entrance of the cave was at square “C-2”. We listed out the landmarks next to the map, creating a coordinate-based index. The grid plus index elevated my child-like imaginary treasure island into the grown-up world of official maps and systems, and thereby transformed it into a real, visitable place.

An obsession was born. I was intoxicated by graph paper. The emptiness of a totally blank page intimidated me by demanding that I make the first move, but graph paper invited my participation by steering my pencil in the grooves of its strictly regular lines. The grid was like a friend who had already done half the work for me. I drew mazes, maps, patterns, plans — all held by the sturdiness of the grid. The effect was soothing. Through the grid’s lattice, all my drawings, no matter how primitive, took on an air of rational certainty.

Around the same time that my dad showed me the grid map game, I started using a computer. In our house, down the carpeted stairs, in the basement, there was a light wood desk, upon which sat a beige plastic box with a rainbow striped Apple logo on the front: the Power Macintosh. Through this machine’s chunky, low res monitor, I witnessed a grid come to life. Each pixel was a modular, addressable component in a digital whole. The windows, the buttons, the fonts, the menus, and the icons — oh, the icons! The world of the computer was filled with little hieroglyphic pictures representing folders, files, control panels, and drawing tools, each crisply rendered on the pixel grid of the screen. The logic and aesthetic of the grid permeated the virtual world of the computer — all rational, all peaceful.

My infatuation with the computer led to a curiosity about how software was made, and here my dad was a valuable resource. Although not a programmer, he was technically savvy, and he taught me how to use HyperCard, a sort of “program for creating programs” distributed with the Mac operating system. HyperCard’s simple monochromatic drawing tools gave me insight into how the virtual world of the computer might have been constructed. Although mysterious, I realized that the virtual world didn’t just come from nowhere — it was made by people.

In 1982, when designer and artist Susan Kare was commissioned to design a set of icons for Apple's new Macintosh computer, she bought a small graph paper notebook from a University bookstore and sketched some initial ideas, using the cells of the graph paper to represent the pixels of a computer screen. The preserved notebook, pictures of which can be found online, could not be more humble; it’s dirty and beat up and the $2.50 price sticker is still stuck to the backside of the cover. A pixelated rendering of a pointing hand adorns the first page, sketched in thick hot pink marker, with a label scrawled below: “PASTE” (as in, “copy and paste”). This low res pictograph supported the desktop metaphor by translating a human concept into the rational structure of the pixel grid. With her “marriage of craft and metaphor,” Kare went on to design countless icons and interface elements, helping to define the visual language of the Mac, including HyperCard.

When seen on screen, stripped of the graph paper scaffold, Kare’s icons seem inevitable and timeless. But in her sketches, the same icons are fragile and human. They are accessible. To me, Kare's notebook expresses an optimism about technology by inviting the viewer to participate, in the same way that my dad's grid-based map game was an invitation to imagine new worlds. What appears inevitable on the screen is anything but. The graph paper says: you can make your own icons, too.

I think that if you want to know how something is made, you should look for the grids. They are the ever-present, behind-the-scenes structure of our cities, our machines, our homes, and our lives. You'll find the grid in the artist's studio, in the patterns of the textile weaver's pattern book, in the architect's floor plan sketches, in the engineer's CAD software; even the monospaced fonts that programmers use fit to the grid. The grid can be found throughout history, from ancient Egyptian architectural plans to medieval European embroidery designs. These artifacts trace the practitioner’s process along the grid's axial constraints.

The grid is the lens through which we understand the natural world. It abstracts over the messy reality of blobs, fluids, particles, trees, mountains, oceans and streams. Seen through the grid, all of the objects you touch, all of the landscapes you see, all the experiences you live, happen in the same place. That place has a name, space, and it is measured, quantified, and standardized by the grid, tamed by its regular meter. No nook or cranny of nature is safe from this blanket of rationalization, stretching to cover the entire Earth in a global-scale grid of longitude and latitude.

As a kid, you might not fully understand the power the grid confers, but you have a sense of it. You are probably introduced to the idea through play. When I asked my dad, in the course of writing this essay, where he first encountered a coordinate grid, he told me it was the game Battleship.

In Battleship, you place a set of ships onto a grid representing the ocean, hidden from your opponent. You take turns naming a row and a column of your opponent’s hidden grid to bomb, and your opponent responds with whether your attempt was a hit or miss, a fact that you record in order to guide further strikes. Here the addressability of the grid becomes a tool for military tactics, the coordinate system a technology of toy violence. Grid-based games like Battleship and Chess demonstrate a grown-up truth about the rationalization of space: those who can map and navigate space can also dominate it. Perhaps my childhood infatuation with grids was at least partly an infatuation with the control of space — the coordinate index of my imaginary island hinting at a desire to conquer that island, to own it by trapping it in the grid’s net.

In 2022, the Museum of Modern Art presented an exhibition on the history of computer game and interaction design, and this exhibition featured Kare's graph paper notebook. I happened to be in New York and felt I had to go to see the infamous artifact in-person.

As I waited in line to enter the museum, I saw my dad's name on a promotional poster for the same exhibit. 11 years after Susan Kare sketched her icons in the graph paper notebook, my dad and his brother created a computer game called Myst. The game was groundbreaking for its time, earning praise and accolades throughout the 90's, although I now find it is rare to encounter someone under the age of thirty who has played it. I went to the exhibition to witness Susan Kare's graph paper notebook, and ran into my dad's legacy, the man who inspired my love for graph paper in the first place. I felt a surge of pride at this surprise. I wanted to tell the museum visitors next to me in line, “That’s my dad! He’s in the MoMA!” I kept my cool and pretended it was normal.

The exhibition activated a constellation of memories: my childhood preoccupation with graph paper, the imaginary maps my dad helped me draw, my love for pixelated iconography, the pseudo-games I created with HyperCard. The humble graph paper notebook in front of me at the Museum of Modern Art now became the center of this constellation; it was the hub that linked these personal experiences together. Then my grid-vision exploded outwards from this center, enveloping everything, and I dreamed that the grid was the understructure to not just my own memories but to the world. I think we project grids outwards onto the world from within ourselves, shining their structure from our minds. We radiate grids. If you are caught in the beam of someone else’s grid, as I was in my dad’s, the grid’s virality will infect you. Its intoxicating pattern will flow through your thoughts and become the architecture of your reality. You will radiate the grid too.

Made by Alexander Miller for The HTML Review 2023 / / twitter / instagram / mastodon