The modest images in this dossier represent my attempt to capture the traces of my thinking-through computation and the procedural. They do not aspire to the status of art. Instead, my output finds analog in cartoons, loose sketches, thumbnails, and Polaroids: The matter through which painters, designers, and photographers think and see that thought reflected back.
In this fashion, my engagement with programming represents what I will call the “cognitive-procedural:” It is a reflective mapping of my ongoing self-fashioning through extending and expanding the affordances of procedural literacy available to me.
We are bound up in our alphabetic literacy: It serves as a “soft” determinant of social, political, and cultural institutions; as a mechanism for scientific knowledge and philosophical inquiry; and, on a much more immediate scale, as a device that negotiates and reifies the self to whom those institutions and bodies of knowledge have given birth.
On the level of personhood, alphabetic literacy is intuitively understood (by the alphabetically-literate) as a tool for graphic self-fashioning: It enlarges us internally, cognitively, and allows us to engage with the world and others symbolically.
Consider: As they learn to read and write, students often keep written diaries of their progress towards literacy: Not because it will make pleasant reading one day, but because we hold that reflective writing accelerates progress towards a better, more robust self that is achieved exclusively through critical reflection — a practice that is a function of advanced literacy and, we expect, will generate better writing. QED.
One of the tasks of my output is to make visible to myself the new literacy that I am working to internalize. A feature of computation is the “return:” a value, typically numeric zero, that is “returned” to the program, or the programmer, at the completion of a set of instructions (actually more often, but I will generalize for simplicity’s sake). The return is capacious: It may contain a photo, a word, a file, or a timestamp, for example. But it is typically almost empty, containing either numeric zero (“That went well, as far as I know”) or numeric one (“There was a problem”).
In other words, as I am becoming acquainted with this form of literacy, the norm that underwrites that experimentation is effectively this: “I will let you know if you make a mistake,” followed by silence. From a technical and practical perspective, I understand the strategy; but from the perspective of experimentation, play, and learning, we need to be alerted to successes as well as failures.
This practice is reflective: I begin by asking myself a question that tests my understanding of some aspect of code, mathematics, or both. I typically have a few in the back of my head, arbitrary questions or problems I have been working through in the shower or while waiting to fall asleep. For example: How could I instruct the computer to draw only “rough” lines? How can the computer pick out the most frequent colors in a photograph? How can that choice better approximate the characteristics of human vision? (e.g., a computer sees a world of difference between color #101010 and color #101011; but the latter has just a tiny bit more Blue in it, and I doubt I could distinguish between the two). Or: Given a sentence comprising n words, how can I tell the computer to split the sentence into three uniform lines? As I experiment with my formulation of the question in code, each attempt at thinking procedurally is made visible on the screen. I interpret the success or failure of my effort; I make a minor change to the code; I repeat.
The process is a working-through in ways that seem to me are largely inaccessible (and possibly uninteresting) to conventional Computer Science, whose motivations (e.g., “efficiency,” “uniformity,” “maintainability,” and the like) promote other kinds of insight.
The output, then, operates as a kind of allegory of itself, offering a tiny, instantiated model of the ongoing practice of “digital critical thinking.” This is distinct from “critical thought” as alphabetic literacy hypostasizes it: Critical thought aspires to objectivity, imagining static, inaccessible truths “beyond inquiry.” My notion of “critical thinking” — as procedural literacy invents it — is not objective, but engaged; not singular, but iterative; not oriented by difference, but according to “families of resemblance.”1
In my work, I have argued (not unproblematically) that ubiquitous computation destabilizes the Being of Plato’s scribal Republic, privileging anew the ceaseless and chaotic Becoming of Heraclitus and Homer.
For all of philosophy’s “disinterestedness,” it is important to recall that Republic is a playful public policy document: Its author (like everyone else of means in Athens) had grown tired of the endless parade of political incompetence and pettifoggery that plagued that region, and during Socrates’ career reached a fever pitch with the “thirty tyrants,” a brutal cabal of oligarchs whose fondness for execution cost hundreds, maybe thousands of Athenians their lives during their brief and bloody reign. Plato’s turn to Being — a stable, eternal, arche-form of existence — was balm to the violent and dangerous political landscape of Athens at the time.
The philosopher saw thugs like the thirty tyrants as endemic to a disordered universe. Inasmuch as Plato seems to have deeply admired his rival Heraclitus (who had lived hundreds of years prior to Plato), he saw no future in the man’s affinity for a universe made out of fire, where there is no time but the “now.” For example:
The passage of time is a child at play; the child creates and destroys like a god.Heraclitus fragment 52, loosely sourced from Burnett (1920).
One of Heraclitus’ best-known fragments exemplifies the effectively hopeless situation from which Plato hoped to escape.
War is the father of us all; and some he has made gods and some men, some in bondage and some free.Heraclitus fragment 53, Burnett translation (1920).
One of the questions that I put to myself, frequently: Are we returning to the Greece of Heraclitus? Is the stability that arose from Plato, Aristotle, and hundreds or thousands of others the stability of alphabetic literacy?
Consider, e.g., the panic that deepfake videos have already inspired. As computation renders the “truth” or falsehood of most media effectively irrelevant, privileging instead experience and sensation, has Plato’s Republic collapsed? The singular, persistent self that Plato, Descartes, and others encouraged us to inhabit: Is it equipped to deal with watching a video of President Obama speaking that is also a video of not-Obama speaking? How will we react the first time that we witness our own likeness appropriated by another, who treats us like a puppet, saying (and doing) and publicly denies our agency? [It is worth noting that we have been here before: Dibbell’s 1993 article, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” remains a touchstone of recent tech writing.]
The internet is a vast wormhole of darkness that eats itself.Actress Scarlett Johansson commenting on “deepfake” videos, and sounding an awful lot like Heraclitus
But perhaps we are already encountering our co-constituted selves, always growing and changing, not fragmented but plural. No longer Human Being, but Human Becoming.
In my courses that involve procedural literacy or basic coding skills, I draw frequently upon speculative scenarios like these, as a means of offsetting the techno-determinist limitations of capital and Computer Science. The process of learning to program is easily aligned with a process of reflection and self-fashioning, as a domain of the liberal arts. With work like those produced above, I hope to encourage students to embrace their own instantiations of creative critical inquiry into computation as a site for thinking-through, and to preserve a record of that idiosyncratic effort for the sake of further reflection.
1 Families of resemblance is an especially rich notion from the later thought of Wittgenstein.