25 Aug 2011 · Writing

Code: Notes on a literary medium

The faint ebb of Steve Jobs’ influence on personal computing this week seems to have set off a moment of reflection and nostalgia on the emergence of a medium and its guiding principles. No better time, thought I, than to self-publish the soul-searching essay I wrote last spring to make sense of a half century of computing, ultimately reading code and computers as, well, texts, media, literary documents.

In his introduction (posted today in Wired) to the updated edition of West of Eden, a telling of Jobs’ own undoing in ‘85, Frank Rose writes: “Personal computers in the ’80s were exotic beasts, as pregnant with threat as with promise.” This sounds about right. The idea that computers were a life force making designs on humanity enthralled me as a teenager reading Ray Kurzweil, then unnerved me as an undergraduate student of Computer Music. Because, they’re still just a thing we made, right?

Then I came across Derek Powazek’s article about pseudonymity in the place they once called “cyberspace”: “Most communication online [in the mid-‘90s] was hidden behind handles, which reinforced the idea that the internet was not ‘real’ in the same way real life was”—finally concluding, “the internet is not a second life anymore, it’s your first one.” Yes, we’ve found much more gratification in online identities as editorializing, rather than fictionalizing, our physical selves.

These two citations from today point to the two “myths of disembodiment” in computing per Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromala, in their excellent Windows and Mirrors, which I draw from in my essay. In the myth of AI (1950s-70s), computers are seen as disembodied minds; in the myth of cyberspace (1980s-90s), computers are viewed as a space for our own disembodied minds. Now, they argue, we live in an era of “embodied computing”.

Since it’s is a fairly rough-hewn text itself, “more about connectivity than a terminus” as my advisor Sara Roberts at CalArts proposed, here are some sparks and teasers on its contents: the eccentric Alan Turing conceiving of computers as “not just a medium but a mind” (Bolter and Gromala) — Sherry Turkle considering why computers are viewed in psychological terms — mid-century structuralist suppositions that human intelligence rests on abstract symbol manipulation — “cyberspace” and computers as a parallel, counter-cultural space — Matthew Kirschenbaum on “programming as world-making”Donald E. Knuth and “literate programming” — speech act theory and a most-excellent debunking of AI via Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores — Florian Cramer proposing a digital poetry — plus Donald Norman, Nelson Goodman, Adrian Holovaty, and Yukihiro Matsumoto, among others…

Despite the irregular prose and single-sitting writing, I invite you to slog through the unedited “Code: Notes on an expressive, linguistic medium”.