Of all the visual shorthand for a particular type of outmoded futurism, one of the most immediately recognizable—like the chrome lettering with which it is often paired—must be the light grid. Usually depicted as a network of glowing straight lines receding in perspective against a black background, occasionally with the outlines of mountains or the blush of dawn visible on the horizon, the light grid (or laser grid, or neon grid) today is in widespread use as the appropriated expression of a perceived aesthetic, a tongue-in-cheek signifier of the naïve dreams of Generation X. It is hard to believe that it once communicated such a potent sense of transformation and possibility, but it did just that. As rocket-fin styling symbolizes the sleek and innocent aspirations of the 1950s, the grid is now the symbol par excellence of “The Eighties,” a now-mythological time when a cocktail of affluence, Cold War tensions, and the encroaching power of computing combined to confer upon the dreamers of the West a form as memorable as it was ephemeral.
Grids have played a vital role in human life and our perception of our environment since the beginning of recorded history: we have been using them as the basis for our dwelling places since at least the third millennium BC, when cities divided into grids of straight streets were already being constructed in the Indus Valley, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Grid-based cities were also a feature of Mesoamerican architecture, with cities such as Teotihuacan in Mexico covering areas of eight square miles.