[Humanist] 26.85 aesthetic computing

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jun 13 22:46:03 CEST 2012


                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 85.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (66)
        Subject: reductive coding and ambiguity

  [2]   From:    Daniel Allington <d.allington at open.ac.uk>                 (26)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.78 aesthetic computing

  [3]   From:    Daniel Allington <d.allington at open.ac.uk>                 (44)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.77 aesthetic computing


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Tue, 12 Jun 2012 07:07:41 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: reductive coding and ambiguity

In Humanist 26.78 Sophia Acord notes that,

> One of the biggest criticisms that I hear about computing from
> humanities scholars is that formal computing languages risk being
> reductive, rather than productive, when creating computing
> environments for humanities work (which may require ambiguity, nuance,
> or multiple interpretations/meanings).

This is, as many here will know, a very old criticism. Any exact 
specification of what to compute and the process of computing it is 
reductive. One response to this that I've flogged is to point out that 
what matters is the failure of the computational model exactly to 
capture what the scholar somehow knows, and in the comparison of the 
model's performance, perfectively iterated, to the scholar's perceptions 
lies the real gold. But there is a big problem here: the assumption that 
the scholar's perceptions have not already been affected by 
computational thinking. In his essay, "The Structures of Computation and 
the Mathematical Structure of Nature" (Histories of Computing, Harvard 
2011), Michael Mahoney writes about computing in the natural sciences, 
specifically biology, that,

> Here the artifact as formal (mathematical) system has become deeply
> embedded in the natural world, and it is not clear how one would go
> about re-establishing traditional epistemological boundaries among
> the elements of our understanding. (p. 179)

I don't see how this cannot be true of the artifactual world of human 
culture as well. Again the assumption of unaffected scholarly 
perceptions assumes a version of the impact theory of relations between 
computing technologies and humanistic scholarship. It fails to take into 
account not just what we call influence but more interestingly the 
possibility of "deep calling unto deep" -- that computing as we know it 
is one manifestation of something that also is manifested in our rush to 
compute. And in any case the generation of scholars (is it now plural?) 
that has grown up with hands on keyboards and mice can hardly claim 
computational virginity.

I recommend to everyone's attention the 5-part series, "The machine that 
changed the world" (WGBH Boston/BBC), and with respect to the question 
above, esp part 3. As Mahoney argues in several of his essays, in the 
early history of computers there was little to no demand for the 
machines apart from the scientists and military people who created the 
things. The desire for them had to be awakened by advertising. In the US 
the turning point was the US presidential election of 1952, when the 
Univac predicted the outcome long before anyone could see that 
Eisenhower would win. But once the desire was awakened, and esp once it 
became possible to own one's own machine, from the late 1970s, the rush 
to possess a computer was enormous. Part 3 of "The machine that changed 
the world" (note the impact-theoretical title) makes it quite clear that 
the millions who bought the things mostly didn't know why they were 
doing so. Now that, I think, tells us something quite important.

But it also makes the question of our ability to think otherwise a very 
difficult and interesting one. This ties in with Lorraine Daston's and 
Peter Galison's work on the historical phenomenon of objectivity as a 
coherent way of thinking about the natural world: the same kind of thing 
happened with photography. A paranoid reaction is one possibility (cf 
"Invasion of the Body Snatchers", 1956); so is the not entirely 
unsentimental lament over the loss of ambiguity, or its mirror image, 
the erotics of the precise. But what seems quite clear to me is the 
burning need for critical enquiries into how we are changing ourselves, 
and how to do this well.

Comments?

Yours,
WM

-- 
Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics,
University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist
(www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Tue, 12 Jun 2012 00:34:44 +0100
        From: Daniel Allington <d.allington at open.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.78 aesthetic computing
        In-Reply-To: <20120611201713.0CDB714A95A at woodward.joyent.us>


>        Date: Sun, 10 Jun 2012 20:26:54 -0400
>        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
>        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.77 aesthetic computing
>        In-Reply-To: <20120610202437.A6E3837DDD at woodward.joyent.us>
> 
> ...
> 
> The audience for the code itself is limited to programmers, but the
> audience for the visible product of that code is both programmers and
> everyone else: all other users. All other users include people who play
> video games and view webpages and write Word documents who, for all
> practical purposes, may as well believe in magic as understand how all that
> is produced.
> 
> Now, isn't code always subordinate to some kind usable product?  ...
> Doesn't that mean that in this economy programmers always are clever
> people who produce usable end products by arcane means?  
> 
Thanks for your thoughtful response, James. However, I think there are real problems in humanists like you and I trying to discuss the aesthetics of computing in an environment still defined by a divide between 'two cultures'.

>From the point of view of the programmer, the usability of the end product by the non-programmer is only one consideration. Another consideration - which, depending upon the task, may be no less important - is the maintainability of the code by other programmers. That is one of the most obvious contexts in which aesthetic issues arise for the programmer, and it illustrates the dangers of trying to reason about the aesthetics of computing from the viewpoint of the end-user. Unfortunately, however, a humanist research paradigm appears to have arisen in which the programmer's exclusive sphere is the solving of practical problems, and, like the end-user who marvels at the finished product, the visionary scholar-fundraiser who manages the programmer 'may as well believe in magic'. 
What I was driving at in my previous email is that the work the programmer does is arcane only insofar as the non-programmer's ignorance - or lack of curiosity - allows it to seem so. All well and good, one might say - we can't all be programmers, after all! - but acceptance of that state of affairs might be argued to disqualify the non-programmer from holding an opinion with regard to the aesthetic aspects of the programmer's craft.

Or do I mean art?

Best wishes

Daniel

-- 
The Open University is incorporated by Royal Charter (RC 000391), an exempt charity in England & Wales and a charity registered in Scotland (SC 038302).



--[3]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Tue, 12 Jun 2012 21:39:24 +0100
        From: Daniel Allington <d.allington at open.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.77 aesthetic computing
        In-Reply-To: <20120610202437.A6E3837DDD at woodward.joyent.us>

Paul

Your post certainly gave me food for thought. On the other hand, it seems to me that a new branch of aesthetics might best concern itself primarily with understanding the ways that aesthetic judgements tend to be made in the real world, which in this case would mean engaging with code as something that is written - and for that reason, I would question the significance of visual programming.

Many programmers and computer scientists currently argue that a high level of abstraction is desirable in programming, but the abstractions they are generally talking about are logical and mathematical, and logical and mathematical abstractions are generally given visual representation through the medium of writing. There may be no intrinsic reason to favour writing over some other systems of visual representation, eg. flowcharts, but right now I can see no sign that either the mainstream of application development or the cutting edge of computer science are moving in such a direction. (I believe that representing algorithms as analogue mechanisms only works for certain kinds of algorithms - I don't think that recursion can be represented in such a way, for example - so I'm not sure this can be seen as a viable alternative except for pedagogical purposes.)

On the other hand, you're absolutely right to point out PureData and Max/MSP as successful examples of favouring flowchart-like visuals over text in programming. I think it's important to emphasise, however, that these systems are a special case where the aim has been to facilitate a very specific kind of high level programming, ie. the chaining together of audio or visual processing modules, for a traditionally code-phobic community, ie. music/audio/video professionals. Visual programming of this sort is not widely used for application development, including by members of the music community: for example, the wonderful open source music engraver, LilyPond implements a LaTeX-like markup language rather than a GUI, uses Scheme as its scripting language, and is mostly written in C++. In other words, it has to be worth looking at why visual programming works in certain specific cases, but it also has to be worth looking at why it doesn't seem to work in general - and it seems to me that the overall focus of research could most usefully be directed at the form of programming that is generally preferred for most programming tasks, at the (aesthetic) reasons for its being preferred, and at the aesthetic principles that have developed around it.

So while I think it's very important to retain an open mind about what 'programming' is, and to consider the aesthetic reasons why non-written forms of programming may be more appropriate for specific users and specific purposes, the signs are that these will remain fringe phenomena for the foreseeable future. Even if they don't, Jim's point certainly stands with regard to virtually the entire history of computer programming since the demise of punch cards etc as an input mechanism.

Best

Daniel

On 10 Jun 2012, at 21:24, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:

> 
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 77.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> 
>  [1]   From:    Daniel Allington <d.allington at open.ac.uk>                 (16)
>        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.70 aesthetic computing
> 
>  [2]   From:    Paul Fishwick <metaphorz at gmail.com>                       (76)
>        Subject: Re: aesthetic computing
> 
> 
> 
>        Date: Sat, 9 Jun 2012 20:23:33 -0400
>        From: Paul Fishwick <metaphorz at gmail.com>
>        Subject: Re: aesthetic computing
>        In-Reply-To: <20120609204605.E765C370A2 at woodward.joyent.us>
> 
> .........Jim R.........…
> ...
> 
> However, since code is always going to be a combination of words, numbers,
> and special characters, I'm not sure that aesthetic computing could ever be
> distinguished from literary or humanities computing: I think it is the way
> that literary or humanities computing would be understood.
> 
> ..........Paul F...........
> 
> Code is not always going to be such a combination. If you look at the
> encyclopedia chapter, you will see "code" that is represented as
> analog machinery. We also have visual languages such as PureData,
> MAX/MSP which do not use writing at least at the higher levels of
> abstraction.

-- 
The Open University is incorporated by Royal Charter (RC 000391), an exempt charity in England & Wales and a charity registered in Scotland (SC 038302).





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