[Humanist] 23.130 programming

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jul 5 09:14:23 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 130.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>                      (57)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.128 programming

  [2]   From:    John Carlson <carlson at medievalprof.com>                   (14)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.128 programming

        Date: Sat, 4 Jul 2009 10:19:29 -0400
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.128 programming
        In-Reply-To: <20090704093716.BC9BD884D at woodward.joyent.us>

Joris -- thank you for the response.  You said something very
interesting that I'd like to address.

But first, about this:

<<Apparently Jim would find that kind of expression boring, but that's
really a question of taste, not of capabilities and functions of code.

Yes, you are absolutely right, and that is the position from which I
started.  I initially responded to a post implying that those who do
not want to write code fear it.  My response was that I don't fear it;
I find it boring.  But that's just my preference.  I understand and
respect that my math professor friend does not like poetry.  My wife
is a history person.  She doesn't like poetry either.

Most of the rest of what you say validates the points I've been making
-- yes, you can write somewhat ambiguous code, but why?

Now this was what I found particularly interesting:

<<So, I'd say it's actually more 'powerful' than human language.>>

Do you really believe that programming code is not a human language?

I would say you don't believe this.  You do believe programming code
is a human language (of course it is; it was created by human beings).
 But you speak of it in the sentence above as if it weren't because
programming code is -not a language human beings use to speak to other
human beings, but to machines-.  So you speak as if programming code
is a machine language, not a human language.

Now, my question is, what difference does it make that programming
code itself -can- communicate complex truths (about human existence)
when the language is designed to talk to a -machine- that's only
looking for a command to turn on or off a series of complex switches
which can only occupy two positions, on and off?  If a human being
writes code, of course the code -can- communicate complex, meaningful
truths to other human beings.  My point is that code is not designed
to do this, though.

I think you run away with yourself a bit here:

> This is what makes computer code/language a double treat to me. It may be
> poetry by itself for the initiated (like the beauty of an elegant equation
> may only be in the eye of the mathematician). As an interpreted language (by
> computers) it may convey or visualize poetry in other (human) languages,
> simulate worlds, allow for creative human human interaction, inspire,
> provoke thought... really anything. So, I'd say it's actually more
> 'powerful' than human language.

as you elide the fact that computer code overlaps normal human spoken
languages, and where it communicates meaningful human truth it must
rely upon normal human spoken languages.  Coding elements can add
nuance to these normal human spoken languages, but cannot replace
them.  This is roughly equivalent to Wittgenstein including symbolic
logic in his Tractatus.  It supplements otherwise quite normal human
speech, but does not replace it.

What I envision from your paragraph above is an elegantly written
string of code that is simultaneously functional for a machine and
communicates meaningful human truth. My question is, how much of the
thousands of billions of lines of code out there even begins to
resemble this description?  A millionth of one percent?  And how often
would anyone really want to write something like this?  The best
programmers usually aren't interested in poetry, and the best poets
probably do fear programming.

Thanks much for raising the level of this discussion by including
direct reference to code elements and how they may be used.

Jim R

        Date: Sat, 4 Jul 2009 21:30:36 -0400
        From: John Carlson <carlson at medievalprof.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.128 programming
        In-Reply-To: <20090704093716.BC9BD884D at woodward.joyent.us>

"But the parallel you attempt to draw between coding and language on
this point still doesn't work.  We don't think in code."

First, all language is code; the images we produce (in mind or on canvas)
are code, too. The reality is, we can't think except in code.

Second, it seems to me that much of humanities computing is predicated on
the notion to exploring one type of code (language) using another type of
code (markup) can be enlighten us by either by revealing patterns and/or
features that were previously obscure or focusing attention those things
that remain obscure after translation - features that resist expression in a
new code.

John Ivor Carlson
Digital Production Editor
Yale University Press

More information about the Humanist mailing list