Why Code? On Expanding Human Possibility

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Over the past several years, I’ve developed a conviction that future work in academic humanities studies should involve students and developing professionals in human and machine languages. This is a conviction not a belief. Mark Bernstein, in a recent review of Hockenberry’s iPhone App Development, writes:

The treatment of design as a separate and superior activity to programming is, I think, misguided. The author is a designer and is writing, I think, for people who are not; he urges them to hire themselves a designer and then do what the designer says. Since the book clearly envisions individual developers or very small teams, this model may be unrealistic. Design and code are not separate things, and attempts to separate them are misguided.

My experience with numerous systems has trained me to agree with Mark’s statement. A couple of significant issues come to mind here.

In learning pedagogy, whether it’s engineering or poetry, we work with a traditional Aristotelean process, working from general to specialized knowledge. This is not cut and dry. In manuscript culture, specialties existed. Scribes may not have prepped the surface for their work. The labor intensity of the scribe’s work prohibited preparation of the skin. Even more complex, the scribe may not have needed reading ability, only a visual/aural understanding of the spoken word or the ability to copy already existing work. Vannevar Bush describes new conditions for the specialist in his famous As We May Think essay, where specialties can be vast in scope but also narrow in their intensity, meaning that they provide little space for study in other disciplines even though they’ve been shaped by them.

Modern education systems, as manifest in most secondary schools, don’t concern themselves with the Aristotelean tension: questions such as: what should be “learned” become strange when testing content provides a ready framework for instruction. School systems have other pressures: testing, funding, demographics. But these school systems are still dominated by the superstructures of reading, writing, and ‘rithetic in a context of “grades” of students. I consider the question of “grade level” as a critical problem to be solved. The question “What is a fifth grader” is a strange one. If she reads and understands The Lord of the Rings is she still a “fifth grader”?

For the past few weeks I’ve been buried in the Rails framework, scratching the surface of the ruby programming language and the Rails machine that puts it into a working context beyond a compiler. But I’m a poet and fiction writer, not a computer programmer. However, the framework has provided me a means of visualizing and framing a couple of systems I’ve wanted to develop for some time, systems indescribable without understanding the “limitations” of the object: what can I “not” do is a significant question. It might be true that 15 years ago a person who regularly wrote into their journal might have envisioned a web-based publishing system. The journal or notebook, such as the Moleskin, has been supported by hundreds of years of “technology,” which provides a model–a date, a body of text, an author, and a perma surface.

The computer is still a pretty simple concept if one can understand electrons. It’s instructed to do things by people using an energy one can’t see with the naked eye. How it is instructed to do something is complex. The amount of instructional language it takes to tell a computer to turn on or to display a body of text can be mind-numbing, as I continue to relearn as I dig around the notion of MVC.

I’m not arguing that all students of the humanities should become programmers or system engineers. Nor am I arguing that all programmers should write poetry. They certainly may, if they wish. I would contend, however, that some important images and relationships require competent understanding of these disciplines for teams to be successful. The Tinderbox forum provides a peek into this team concept. People use Tinderbox, they have questions, these inspire questions back, and deeper understanding of the system and its possibilities.

It’s a nice thing to behold: the possibilities or capabilities of people not computers.

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