What is Code?

After a long semester of reading theoretical and fictional texts about the concept of the interface, I think I finally had a break through reading What is Code? this week. Section 2.1 made real for me many of the things we have been circling around in our readings thus far. It’s an obvious point, and something I have known conceptually in my head all along, but seeing the code that appears when typing a letter on a keyboard finally slapped me in the face this week.

Similar to zihan’s question about “Who is really doing the writing when we type on a laptop, us or the code?” I would venture to ask: “What language am I even writing in? Am I even saying something sensical, that I myself can understand?” The code that appears when I type my name transforms information that is entirely familiar to me into something foreign, which essentially reduces me—my personhood, my concept of “self”— into a series of letters and numbers that I interpret as gibberish, but that are really a kind of mechanized and standardized language between the computer and the keyboard. I am almost left out of the conversation entirely.

The interface of the keyboard/computer makes something that I interpret as being entirely subjective and personal, the act of writing, into just another series of coding that is strung together. This level of displacement challenges the notion of the interface that I had up until this point, particularly Hookway’s of theorizing interface as a kind of relation to machines. I fancied myself as “writer,” as “owner” of my laptop, as being “in control” of the way I relate to machines. In some ways I conceived of myself as having the upper hand in my relation to the interface, in that I am human, thereby superior in my interpretative and critical thinking. Playing around with Paul Ford’s interactive keyboard, however, flipped the script. I don’t know if humans are as in control as we think we are when it comes to our interactions with technology. Even when writing “personal” documents, we must entrust a computer with that information, and at the end of the day, the words and letters we worry ourselves over mean nothing to the computer’s coding of those words and letters.

Even if I knew how to code, I wonder if I would feel any sort of authority over technology. I can’t help but think that it wouldn’t help the situation much. As a “coder” or “developer,” I am still manipulating technology under a very strict set of conditions—I must bow to the computer’s language and limitations. I wonder where this leaves us. I might be becoming a disgruntled, Flusserian sort of luddite here, but I have to ask—when our language is essentially superseded by the language of code, does writing (as we understand it) really have a future? Or are we doomed to bend to the will of technology, to make our subjective thoughts and interpretations fit the mold of what the interface demands?

One thought on “What is Code?

  1. Your post is making me think back to Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces and her call to write/read in a way that pushes back against the “system” or those corporations that insist on selling us our own work/information. I wasn’t thrilled about the way she so suddenly returned to print books as a sort of solution, but I can’t help but sympathize with her project. I already tend to vacillate between being excited about technological opportunities (such as those presented in Reading Machines) and being a curmudgeonly luddite, so the concerns that you’re raising are real ones for me. As you ask, what exactly is a person doing when they type their name? What kind of agency are we turning over to programs (and programmers, as “What is Code?” both did and did not suggest!) and corporations and applications? What kinds of possibilities are closing down even as others open up? While researching for my final project I came across this article that talked about hand-writing as an anti-war act during WWI (through the lens of a specific novel) and I’m wondering if we could say something similar of hand-writing today… only perhaps learning to code for ourselves is the “handwriting” of the future…

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