Monthly Archives: March 2010


Apropos of our class discussion today about the poetics of code and different cultural perspectives on programming, here’s a description of a theoretical programming language called Haifu inspired by principles of Haiku poetry and Eastern philosophy. Interesting!

Design Principles:

  • A programming language should respect nature and be mindful of its beauty.
  • The language will be based on the five classical elements of Asian thought, rather than the limiting Western Aristotelian notion of four elements. The five elements are: Earth, Fire, Water, Wood, and Metal.
  • The language should have artistic merit. To this end, all valid code must be in the form of haiku.
  • Because I only speak English, code will take the form of English haiku, with the classic 5-7-5 syllable structure based on English words. I realise this is a fundamental limitation on the purity of the language, but any Chinese or Japanese speakers out there are welcome to port Haifu to versions in those languages.

New Twilight Book Online

I came across this news release today. Stephanie Meyer, the author of the Twilight Series announced that she is releasing her new Twilight novella online, in a “read-only” format, one day after the book comes out in stores. “Stephanie told fans that they had already bought a “ton” of her books and she wanted to give them back something for free” (Mirror).

In an earlier post I talked about how authors were using the Kindle to pre-publish their novels as a way to get feedback. However, Meyers use of the Internet to publish is different. Meyer is adopting the Creative Commons approach toward the spread of her work. Sort of a – buy it if you can, enjoy it online if you can’t.

I haven’t read any of the Twilight novels, so I wasn’t immediately excited about this, but I started thinking about new publishing mediums for novels. I think I need to try out the iPad to see if it is easier to read text for long periods of time. I really hate reading long articles on the computer screen and if there is any technology I would love to have it would be a “reading” friendly computer screen so that I wouldn’t have to hunch over with glasses squinting at my screen. I also feel some attachment to holding a book, the smell of books, the look of covers. I guess I am just still very skeptical of e-books at this point and am trying to think through the actual reasons why.

Coevolution of Machine and Human Being

In chapter four of Hayles’ Electronic Literature, Revealing and Transforming, Hayles discusses the phenomena that take place during human interactions with intelligent machines. She states that as literature is further integrated into computational mediums it further impacts the way in which these programs develop and visa versa. As these processes begin to take place, humans begin to incorporate specific techniques and acquire particular methods in dealing with the symbiotic relationships we’ve developed with machines: “Evolving in active interplay with intelligent machines, the ‘human’ neither encloses  the technological nor is enclosed by it. Rather, human agency operates within complex systems in which nonhuman actors play important roles.” The cultural effects in dealing with computers aren’t only evident in our ability to passively interact with them after becoming desensitized to their bugs, but also in how we currently interact with other human beings–nowadays human interaction has changed in a variety of ways due to our constant communication via technology. Both human beings and machines have begun building off of each other while simultaneously looping into one another.  Or as Hayles puts it in pg. 138: “My body knows things my mind has forgotten or never realized; my mind knows things that my body has not (yet) incorporated.”  

In a world where we are constantly giving ourselves to our intelligent machines and where our intelligent machines are more and more becoming extensions of our mind, will we ever reach a point where the symbiosis has reached its fullest potential and if so, where and when will that point be? Will we keep coming up with new technology to “have our minds be less in our minds” until we realize that our minds were never an intrinsic part of us at all, but instead a small blip in the radar that is the network of existence?

The Bug and Control

Ellen Ullman’s The Bug parallels the life of Roberta Walton with Ethan Levin’s as well as paralleling these human lives with that of the machine.  In doing so we as readers are able to understand the machine not in the terms of it being a machine, but rather an entity that functions within the world as a part of our life.  As Ethan’s search for the bug becomes increasingly difficult and important as the stakes are raised, we start to truly see the computer and the machine as something that can go beyond human control and desire.  In a novel that explores the world of a computer programmer, one could expect to gain more of a solid grasp on the power that humans have over machines in a more detailed way.  With the intermittent writing and explanations of code and programming, we as readers are able to further understand the close work these programmers have with the machine. However when the bug is identified as being elusive and “flakey” we are made aware of the way in which computers are not solely functioning under the control of the human.

As the bug begins to destroy Ethan’s life, the reader can start to acknowledge some critical issues to consider in the digital age.  As we have tried to position computers as different and separate from our lives as humans and our privilege to lived experiences, we have also failed to see the similarities that emerge during moments of chaos.  While human life can not be as easily programmed and “debugged” as computers can be, once “bugged” all rules or codes that we live by or have written are all no longer considered stable.  By recognizing that at our worst we are most like the machine, perhaps we can then begin to think about how what it is about our best that distinguishes us from the computer.


Since John Conway’s “Game of Life” is a central metaphor in this week’s novel, The Bug, here’s a page explaining the facts of “Life” along with a nifty Java applet you can use to draw and run your own patterns. According to the author, “Life” is the most frequently programmed computer game in existence. I remember having fun as a kid playing with a version of “Life” on my family’s cranky old Windows 95 PC.

The persistance of the bug

How many novels are there about computer programmers? I can think of quite a few about futuristic cyberpunk sci-fi hackers, but almost none about the real lives of programmers in the present day (or the recent past, as in Ellen Ullman’s The Bug), and even fewer that really delve in to the daily frustrations and messy private lives of their characters in quite the same depth as Ullman’s novel. Spending all day in front of a computer terminal doesn’t exactly seem like the stuff of punchy, action-packed prose. But it is precisely by taking a long hard look at daily slog of programming, from the perspective of characters just on the verge of the cultural shift towards a computer-ubiquitous ‘society of the screen,’ that Ullman succeeds in breaking through the surface mundanity of computing to reveal the deeper cultural and philosophical issues at stake.

The first part of the novel follows the parallel stories of Roberta Walton, a linguist-turned-software product tester, and Ethan Levin, an insecure computer programmer, as they become absorbed in the obsessive pursuit of a ‘bug’ in Ethan’s code in the face of personal lives spiraling out of control. Ethan, especially, turns to programming to regain the sense of order and control he has lost in his crumbling marriage. However, programming fails to yield the sense of order he desires. We learn that Ethan’s interest in computer programming arose from his fascination with The Game of Life, a simulation program that generates elaborate, unpredictable patterns of ‘cells’ based on simple rules. He begins designing his own version of the Game of Life, inspired by the notion that “if he could just work his way down and down into the heart of living molecules, he would find something simple and clean.” (29) However, as Ethan is eventually forced to set aside his pet project to get a job in the high-pressure world of business programming, he discovers a life much messier than the one he idealistically envisioned. The life of a programmer isn’t one of mastery and control, but of continual frustration, the obsessive reworking of the same small problems in an attempt to ‘debug’ the mechanism and keep the endless permutations of human error at bay.

In a thought-provoking passage early in the novel, Ullman writes:

“Bug: supposedly name for an actual moth that found its was into an early computer, an insect invader attracted to the light of glowing vacuum tubes, a moth that flapped about in the circuitry and brought down a machine. But the term surely has an older, deeper origin. Fly in the ointment, shoo fly, bug-infested, bug-ridden, buggin’ out, don’t bug me–the whole human uneasiness with the vast, separate branch of evolution that produced the teeming creatures who outnumber us, plague us, and will likely survive our disappearance from the earth. Their mindless success humbles us. A parallel universe without reason. From the Welsh: a hobgoblin, a specter.” (71)

The spectral “bug” comes to stand for the universal chaos and messiness of life–that which, despite our efforts to the contrary, continues to evade our control.

As Katherine Hayles points out in Electronic Literature, the more reliant we become on computers, the more essential it is to recognize “the bug” as a fact of life. Code both conveys and disrupts the sense of continuity in our engagement with the digital world: “One one hand, code is essential for the computer-mediated communication of contemporary narratives; on the other hand, code is an infectious agent transforming, mutating, and perhaps fatally distorting narrative so that it can no longer be read and recognized as such.” (137) Ullman ends her Salon interview on a similarly cautionary note: as American society grew increasingly paranoid and increasingly dependent on computer-mediated information in the early ’00s, we somehow arrived at a moment when Total Information Awareness seemed less like a terrifying Orwellian pipe-dream and more like a perfectly reasonable, plausible use of government resources. (Arguably, a “bug” in the voting mechanism got George W. Bush elected in the first place. Think about it.) Computer-mediated communication, and the fallability thereof, has serious political implications.

Human Technology Interaction

In the Salon article that Rachel mentioned in her previous post, Ellen Eullman says at the end of the interview in reference to the way humans treats machines that, “We’ve given these electronic records the aura of infallibility and truth.” Just because a technology becomes a part of our lives through the machine form, does not mean we should treat these machines as flawless and foolproof. I think that because new machine technologies increasingly appear in user friendly formats, we are blinded through design and interface of what actual code built the technology. And, as Katherine Hayles reminds us, we do not realize the origins of the technology until it breaks down:

“These banal events signify that the everyday human-machine communications integrating us into a world in which virtuality and actuality seamlessly merge have been disrupted; somewhere, somehow, the interfaces connecting human action, intention, and language with code have momentarily broken down” (Hayles 136).

Ultimately, humans create the code that runs the machine. Our interactions with a machine only operate previous code written by the programmer and instead of interacting with an infallible machine, we are actually interacting with a fellow human through our machine manipulation. If you visualize an interaction with a machine as an interaction with a fellow human, you are actually interacting with a human in the past. It is this aspect of the machine that creates many of the problems that we encounter. As users of machines grow and require new and advanced technologies, the technologies that are part of our lives remain stagnant, with software written in the past. Updates try to solve this problem, but alas, new additions may never keep up with our unnerving ability to create a list of new tasks and abilities we demand of our technologies.

Ellen Ullman, in her novel The Bug, reveals the underlying relationship that humans have with programmable code. As Levin’s life falls a part around him, literally with the earthquake and figuratively with his love life, we also see how human emotion and action affect the development and tracking of computational bugs. Even though Levin created the code in which the bug derived, he is unable to locate the place in the software that the bug originated in. Ullman tells the parallel story of Levin’s relationship with Joanna to show the complexity and depth behind the computer software. By intertwining stories of code with love, Ullman brings light to the life of computer programmers as well as insight into the inter-workings of software development. I am curious to see how these themes play out and resolve within the second half of the novel.

Ellen Ullman interview and some thoughts on object-oriented fiction

There’s a really nice, extensive Salon interview with Ellen Ullman about The Bug and her life as an English major-turned-computer programmer in the mid-80s. Apparently, the novel started out as nonfiction, a novella-length essay about her own experience with a persistent, elusive bug, not unlike the titular bug that Roberta and Ethan encounter in the novel.

The interview is full of interesting insights about Ullman’s writing process, including this thought-provoking comment about her choice to give the novel a historical setting:

…trying to write about new computer things, if you’re going to spend years on it, like you do on a novel, it’s pretty hopeless. By the time you’re done with it, it won’t be new anymore. It’s not journalism. This book took me five years. If you tried to write it about breaking developments, it’s going to look old no matter what. You can’t keep updating; it’s too integral a story. You can’t just flip pieces in and out of it — it’s not object-oriented.

What would a novel look like if it were “object-oriented”? What if there was a piece of fiction out there somewhere being continually updated and retooled to reflect changing conditions in the scenario it describes? Of course, it would be impossible to write a story that perfectly kept pace with current events: it’s the old Tristram Shandy problem. A writer can never “catch up” to the present moment. But I’m interested in the idea of a story that a reader can see growing and adapting in more-or-less real time, something that none of the hypercybertextufictions (what are we supposed to call them again?) we’ve studied thus far are actually capable of doing. Many of the examples we’ve studied do contain elements of randomness that generate many programmed permutations, but none to my knowledge are being actively rewritten or updated by their authors. What if the process of writing electronic literature was more like developing software? What if Michael Joyce were still writing Afternoon and released an updated version every few months? Would that be totally insane, or an exciting new paradigm for fiction? Isn’t that kind of modularity and seriality more or less what a blog does? And if so, whither the fiction-bloggers?

They exist! According to Wikipedia, “blog fiction” is a thing. It’s a tricky literary category, however, partly because of the strong associations we have between blogging and non-fiction (journalistic or diary-style blogs), and partly because even ostensibly non-fiction blogs contain fictionalized elements. Fascinating stuff!

Watching We Live in Public

I downloaded We Live in Public on itunes while waiting for my return flight back to school. (Note: there are way too many inappropriate scenes to watch this in an airport with families around…) Anyways, I thought the film was very interesting. I had watched Digital Nation earlier in the week and both films showed very different interpretations of our relationship with technology and the Internet.

We Live in Public tells the story of Josh Harris, “The greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” Harris made his fortune and debut into the media during the dot com boom of the 90’s. He started a couple Internet start-up companies and was one of the key figures within the powerful group of youth nerds that dominating the New York computer scene. Within his business ideas, Harris predicted the popularity of many of the Internet technologies that have become an integral part of our daily lives. Of particular interest to Harris was the changing ideal of privacy. Now, we don’t think twice about the amount of information we fork over to google or present via Facebook. However, at the beginning of the Internet boom, the ways that people were beginning to share previously private information changed the cultural landscape.

Through various cultural experiments portrayed throughout the film, Harris put the lives of participants as well as himself online. Everything about their lives (a sort of Big Brother experiment) was made public. After the group experiment ended in 2000, Harris and his girlfriend taped their own life together and showed it online. Gradually, both Harris and his girlfriend began to relate more to the viewers online (who would contribute their ideas via chatrooms) than with each other. For example, after an argument, Harris and his girlfriend would rush to their computers to see who “won” the argument in the eyes of the people watching the tape. Ultimately, their relationship broke down. Harris also lost all of his net worth in the dot com bust; He left NY and went into the country to start an apple farm. The film ends with Harris trying one last time to pitch an Internet company idea to MySpace, failing, and then moving to Ethiopia to avoid creditors and to experience “real” culture.

What does all this mean when one of the largest Internet figures leaves the world of technology behind and chooses to live in an underdeveloped country with no connection to the world made available through technology? If Harris was able to predict the future popularity and cultural significance of many of these technologies, is he also predicting their decline? Or at least the negative effects that the technologies might have? I think fundamentally that We Live in Public is telling the story of someone young coming into huge amounts of money and power, not knowing what to do with this newfound power and wealth, and ultimately breaking down. What is interesting about the phrase, “biggest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of,” is that because technology is constantly changing, the people who are influencing the way we interact with these technologies are also changing. Without a prominent voice in the field, I think this allows each individual or community to really dictate their own relationship to technology and how those technologies are able to influence their lives.

Education and Technology

While I haven’t finished Diamond Age, so I cannot make any decisive conclusions, a common theme presented at the start of the novel is that of the education. Neal Stephenson is tackling fundamental questions surrounding a new generation of youth and what education would best equip them for the future. Digital Nation, the PBS documentary (a link posted earlier by Rachel), also addresses this issue by investigating the ways technology has influenced and will influence the education system and the youth of today.

Stephenson is particularly interested in how environments and cultures affect a person’s education and identity. In relaying the history of Finkle-McGraw on page 17 he states, “while people were not genetically different, there were culturally different as they could possibly be, and some cultures were simply better than others.” The example of a community helping victims of a plane crash in need shows how some communities are better equipped to work together, thriving as a group. Throughout the novel, cultural differences of the Victorians, Hindus, Chinese, and other territories are overtly expressed. I am curious to see how Stephenson plays out his use of racial undertones throughout the rest of the novel. While the theme isn’t specifically addressed by the characters, the author is definitely interested in how race affects this future world environment.

With the new generation, the characters of Finkle-McGraw and Hackworth want their children to lead “interesting lives” (19). While the characters talk about the different child rearing styles of staunch discipline versus freedom, they never really expand on what this definition of “interesting” really entails. It is apparent, however, that they feel they need to take the education of their own children and grandchildren’s into their own hands – hence the Primer. This interactive book bonds with the child it is made for, educating them on simple topics such as spelling and more complicated tasks as how to interact with the world. This theme of controlling education to see how it affects the lives of the children will be the central theme of the novel that gets played out.

Digital Nation was interesting to watch while reading the novel because the documentary shows how technology is changing education today. In Korea, children are taught “netiquette” in grade school, singing songs on how to treat people online. In South Korea, digital technologies have transformed the lives of its citizens and the country is feeling the pronounced side effects and consequences of becoming a digital nation. How can you use technology to advance and education a country without leading children to become psychologically addicted to the screen?

To show the more beneficial effects of technology, the documentary follows schools that have embraced the use of technology in education within the United States. Many of the teachers interviewed talked about how by using technology, such as interactive powerpoints, computer lessons, etc, they are able to capture the attention of youth that would previously tune out older forms of teaching. They also point to the fact that the future is within digital technologies and if we want to prepare the upcoming generations for success, we have to implement technology into the education system.

The film ends without any conclusive argument, which is how most of our class sessions have ended. We can see the effects of hyper technology use on the kids in Asia, but we aren’t quite ready to admit that our society might be leading in that direction. We also aren’t quite ready to admit technology is fully beneficial. I am curious to read the end of Diamond Age, written in ’95, to see Stephenson’s prediction of technology and its influence on education.