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There is a new book by Nancy Armstrong called How Novels Think.  It's brilliant, congruent with recent work by Andrew Elfenbein (in PMLA and elsewhere) which discusses print presentation, the look and feel of early 19th-c texts, as "interface."  Armstrong's premise is that, since novels do a certain amount of thinking for us, they are bundles of smart data.   Novelistic conventions, then, are basically a software package for making information smart.  The really brilliant piece of her argument (it may be obvious, but I still think it is brilliant) is her idea that software packages and data bundles in-form: they form the inside of us — our psyches, our selves — as a means and effect of giving us information.

Armstrong's argument really helps me understand something that John Maeda is worried about in thinking about the computer as the artist's material.  In Creative Code, he says that he is worried that software is becoming too complex for people to use as a tool (intuitively, without laboriously reading manuals) while programming is becoming easier at the expense of creativity.  I can really understand what he's saying here if I think about software as a set of conventions for a specific type of novel — historical romance or gothic fiction, e.g. — and so the programmers of this software as the artists who come up with new genres, new forms, usable by many other very creative people.  Here is Maeda expressing his worry:

Programming tools are increasingly oriented toward fill-in-the-blank approaches of the construction of code . . . . The experience of using the latest software, meanwhile, has made even expert uses less likely to dispose of their manuals, as the operation of the tools is no longer self-evident.  Can we, therefore, envision a future where software tools are coded less creatively [i.e., a future of impoverished novelistic genres]? Furthermore, will it someday be the case that tools are so complex that they become an obstacle to free-flowing creativity [i.e., that you can't churn out gothic or sci fi]?

Maeda’s own software “Illustrandom” seems to me a beautiful example of something that took complicated rather than fill-in-the-blank programming and renders software that is pretty intuitive and so will allow creativity to flow.

Also, is it possible to discuss some of Ira's work, Protobytes, as the kind of work that intervenes in Maeda's problematic?  Ira, you said that you used bits of code, without thinking it, as a painter might use brush strokes, throwing up bits of it, then seeing what happened?

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One Comment

  1. Upon rereading my response below, I think it is very poorly linked to Laura's comment. I'm not sure what the hell I was thinking–something about a response to Maeda's concerns about programming complexity. 

    If code is the language of our time, and I think it is, we need global code literacy. Currently, there is an unhealthy co-dependency between technology companies and the rest of us due to rampant illiteracy. Because of this illiteracy we don't have the capacity to judge the algorithmic quality of the goods/services we want. Instead we base our understanding and judgment on simple primitive metrics: speed, form factor, cost, features. However, we are using these products/services to satisfy needs, requiring broader understanding. For example, the average child will now watch films predominantly about simple themes most effectively illustrated through 3D technology. Subtle messaging and complex plot development doesn't lend itself well to this medium. Much of the impact of these films is based thus on the "WOW" factor, since the technology creates "magical" fx, stemming from viewer illiteracy, or the inability for the user to understand how these fx are created. When users understand the underlying code, these fx lose much of their superficial impact, and issues of subtle character development, human psychology, etc can again be emphasized. Ultimately, code could address these more subtle factors as well, but only for a highly literate reader. Enough ranting.


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