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A Writing Exercise for the Public: Warren Sack on Digital Convergence

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Warren Sack‘s lecture at CSISP last week was an invitation to the public to engage with the creative re-appropriation of code. Sack presented a draft chapter of his book on Software Studies as Liberal Arts, in which he aims to present the story of digital convergence in a way that enables the reader to become a new kind of writer and the digital humanities to meet code in new ways.

Sack began with a Venn-diagram used by Nicholas Negroponte to promote the naissent MIT Media Lab (1978), a clean and symmetric depiction of how the older broadcasting and publishing industries would converge with the computer industry. By tracing back the history of digital convergence, Sack highlighted the asymmetry of this process, the computer industry being much more determinate than the other two. He also showed the multiple ways this convergence has been enacted. Even as early as in the 1830s, photography, telegraphy and computing shared common trajectories. Whilst acknowledging that many things have become digitized, Sack argued that this process has been, and still is, dependent on a specific notion of numbers and on the formatting of text and images in a specific a way. Therefore, the digital convergence is an accomplishment only under specific conditions.

Nicholas Negroponte (1978).

Sack elaborated this point using ‘cellular automata’, as a way of illustrating the equivalence of image, number and language. A cellular automaton is a programming language consisting of a grid of squares. The color of the squares can be black or white, or respectively 1 and 0 in binary numbers. The color changes because it is specified as relative to the surrounding cells of the square, a relationship which is defined through a set of rules. Sack illustrated the workings of this language with the work of John Simon’s artwork Every Icon. This 32-by-32 matrix began with only white squares in 1997 and will be counting up through every possible number until the whole grid turns black. (Which will take an enormous amount of years expressed by a 299 digit number.) Sack translated this idea to a more familiar image, that of an apple. The image of the apple can, depending on the context, be interpreted as Adam and Eve’s apple, as Snow Whites’s apple, Alan Turing’s apple, or Steve Job’s Apple. Sack’s apple, consists of black and white squares, or a very large binary number on the Every Icon grid. As the cellular automaton has drawn together image, number and language, we can see how the apple image can be understood as a programming language as well.

 

Apple as image, binary and number.

But these examples are not merely illustrative for Sack. In each chapter of the book he will discuss one of the five liberal arts and accompany that with an implementation of a programming language. The book is an invitation to play with these languages and explore whether we can write them in a different manner than they were meant for. The digital humanities could in that way intervene or pick up codes that are currently overlooked and participate in, or at least understand fully, the way the world is being rewritten right now.

An engagement with code becomes a necessity to be able to understand what Sack terms “digital ideology”, the ideas associated with the digital condition, and contemporary digital life. Sack stressed that this requires attending to the specificities of programming languages and the way they differ from natural languages. Code is imperative (“do this”; “if this then…”), independent (it can take up tasks), impersonal (there is no specification of persons), infinitesimal (it is microscopic; invisible to the naked eye), illegible (it is difficult, impossible, or sometimes even illegal to read), instantaneous (it is faster than the blinking of our eyes). Taking into account those differences, Sack argued that the contemporary shift from prose to program based societies is of the same kind of importance as the shift from oral based societies to science and prose based societies.

In relation to these societal changes he raised a few concerns. One relates to the aspect of the “illegibility” of code. Similar to prose literacy in the past, currently only a select elite is code literate. Would that imply that access to code literary should become a human right? The illegibility of code also raises questions about the way democracy is organised. For example, it is illegal to review the code that is used for the voting machines in the U.S. because the code is protected under U.S. trade secrecy laws. According to Sack, the digital convergence has destroyed many institutions, such as the local bookstore and the post office, and it has enabled new formations, for example, automated video surveillance. For Sack, it is only by rereading and rewriting prose and programs that can we respond to these broader issues.

Rules for Conway’s Game of Life.

It is in this playing field that Sack sees room for an intervention in rewriting the world. For Sack, computers and codes are tangles that take part in politics, through processes that bring existing institutions into crisis. In order for a public to be able to rewrite new institutions, we need to do code.  From that perspective, he sees his book as complementary to the work of Nina Wakeford and Noortje Marres. Sack understands computer programming languages as ‘devices’, and more specifically as forms of expression, and he proposes to think through the remediation of these devices in those terms: where is agency located in this remediation, can we program those devices, and what does it mean to change them? Hence Sack’s goal is to open up new registers for expression.

So, although we need to understand his work as debating scholars such as Katherine Hayles and John Johnston, arguing that they need to get closer to code itself, his stress is on code-intervention itself, which triggered several responses from the audience. Some wondered whether this focus risks doing away with some of the complexities involved. Is code not even more complex than an assemblage of image, number, language, but a situated practice as well? Moreover, will an engagement with code be enough to organise a public in the way pitched by Sack? Does the Deweyan notion of the public that Sack mobilises in line with Marres’ work – a public that comes into being through indirect effects – also lend itself to an interventionist program? Although time was too short to settle all the issues Sack laid out, by giving us a way into understanding code, the attendents left the room with more instruments than were available at start.

Click for a full recording of the lecture, courtesy of Dustin O’Hara.

By Lonneke van der Velden

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