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This is from a letter I sent to the faculty of the Interactive Media Studies program at Miami, regarding the development of an IMS research mission statement.

A point that I would like to see stressed in the mission is the deeper fundamental impact that computation brings to media studies. I think it is easy to lose the forest for the trees here—aided in large part by the software industry. The tendency, both in and out of academia, is to see computation (the glass half full view) as a facilitating and democratizing tool/force, which in itself is not a bad thing. However, this somewhat superficial perspective I think misses the much more significant potential of computation as a distinctive medium and even alternative "intelligence"*. The tool/force perspective relies on an industrial age paradigm-technology enhances, frees, empowers, etc. Computation fits neatly within this continuum of being another incremental step toward full automation. Again, this is a valid and useful signification. However, it seems also to me to be overly egocentric-the individual remains in control of the machine; ideally it serves his/her wishes (ultimately completely.)

In contrast, computation can be a much less agreeable and cooperative agent. As a tool, it is arguably highly inefficient. Consider the actual costs of system development, operations, training, deployment and maintenance, vis-a-vis work productivity. Of course current human demand for "toys" makes these numbers work, but if we try to separate the fulfillment of actual human needs from wants, I wonder how productive computer technology really is (yeah, yeah, I know this is wimpy lefty thinking.) Considering computation as a medium offers a significant break from the older productivity model. As a medium, computation offers universal mutability; it can model/process/analyze/generate visual, aural, tactile, kinetic, textual, etc. data–it can take the form of (perhaps) everything. Thus, when we segment to: digital media, digital humanities, etc, we are expressing a bias based on older disciplinary boundaries rather than any limit inherent within the medium. This is something to consider seriously. And filtering further to digital video, 3D, multimedia, etc seems highly problematic.

A current problem is how to get a literal grip on/in/around the medium. The software industry has stepped in to categorize/granularize the medium for us, and make a whole lot of moola in the process. They have been very effective in confusing the mechanism for the medium. Epistemology is not a high priority in the engineering process, so our software tools don't ask why only how, and we keep buying up the stuff, even if most of us never use 9/10ths of the features in these bloated tools-yet we dutifully upgrade every cycle. I would argue that to stop this cycle and get a "grip" on the medium we need greater fluency in the actual computation medium–not simply facility in manipulating commercial software applications. And this is best achieved through developing programming literacy. I believe IMS should be at the forefront of this-not to train computer scientists, but rather to provide essential education. If we want our students to be able to parse, interpret, analyze, etc. shouldn't they have that proficiency in perhaps the single most dominant and controlling medium in their lives? And obviously I think IMS research should blaze a path in this area. Let me stress again that this is not about low-level computer science based research, but rather fluency in the computation medium and work/research that reflects this fluency and hopefully helps define our emerging field.

* I'll offer some additional half-baked thoughts on "alternative intelligence" in a future post.

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2 Comments

  1. I think Ira's posting is really brilliant. It suggests two things to me. First, part of teaching programming literacy involves teaching how software pre-parses up the world for you, not allowing you to think and do specific kinds of things. Using photoshop is like writing in a language in which you can only use nouns with the copula. It's hard to MOVE anything or anyone if all you've got is "is." But a prelude to teaching it would be research in the field. Maeda has this incredible bit in Creative Code about how software tools are getting to be less intuitive and more like programming, but without thereby teaching programming literacy,* and simultaneously programs are becoming more limited, less creative (I forget why suddenly, but it's connected to what's happening with software).

    So, would it be wise to add to the research agenda:

    research that defines "programming literacy" and argues for its necessity
    research into the effects upon thinking and creativity of software programs
    research into the viability and process of teaching programming literacy

    ???

    What about adding "programming" itself, and/or software creation, as part of the IMS research agenda? For instance, we could investigate whether it is possible to create software that teaches programming literacy, Flash without the clickable functions (that Ira never lets his students use).

    *See my posting Novels as Software for the quotation from Maeda, below.

  2. "research that defines “programming literacy” and argues for its necessity
    research into the effects upon thinking and creativity of software programs
    research into the viability and process of teaching programming literacy
    What about adding “programming” itself, and/or software creation, as part of the IMS research agenda? "

    Yeah, this sounds reeaaal good to me. Maeda's original A+C group dealt with these issues as they related to the creative population (mostly visual designers,) and Processing grew out of this research. Other inititiatives, such as Alice at CMU and Mary Flanagan's RAPUNSEL project have also applied novel approaches addressing programming pedagogy.


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