Code Acts: How Computer Code influences the Way We Perceive the World

February 14, 2013 at 1:50 am 7 comments

This is a fascinating essay.  Some of it goes too far for me (e.g., that code “produces new forms of algorithmic identity”), but the section I quote below is making a deep comment relative to the arguments we’ve been making here about “computing for everyone.”

Why should everyone know about computing?  I’ve argued about the value of computational literacy as literacy — a way of expressing and notating thought.  I’ve also argued about the value of computer science as science — insight into how the world we inhabit works.  This part of the essay is saying something more generative — that code provides metaphors for the way we think about the world, so not knowing about code thus limits one’s ability to understand modern culture and science.  The idea is akin to computational thinking, but more about cultural practices than cognitive processes.

Code is the language of computation; it instructs software how to act. But as the instructions written down in code travel out into the world, organized in the algorithmic procedures that make up software, it also has a significant influence on everything it touches. The result is a profound softwarization of society as software has begun to mediate our everyday ways of thinking and doing.

For example, software and its constituent codes and algorithms have become a metaphor for the mind, for ideology, for biology, for government, and for the economy, and with the rapid proliferation of software as an interface to the world, code has been seemingly naturalized in collective life. Computer code has also been described as a kind of law, or the set of rules and constitutional values that regulate the web. The idea that code is law suggests that choices about how to code the web will define the controls and freedoms that are built or programmed into it.

These ways of looking at code demonstrate that code is much more than a language for instructing computing machines. Instead, we need to understand code as a system of thought that spills out of the domain of computation to transform and reconfigure the world it inhabits.

via Code Acts: How Computer Code Configures Learning | DMLcentral.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  February 14, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Doesn’t this seem a lot more shallow than (say) Marvin Minsky’s Turing Award Lecture (ca 1970), or any number of Papert’s writings in the 60s? …



    • 2. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  February 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      Alanone, that was my first reaction as well. I was expecting a potential synthesis of Soloway’s works and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Dijkstra, Kuhn, and Bakhtin… Then I read the text and I was reminded of a much more galvanized / polemic argument by Soowook Kim or discussions from Chopra and Dexter.

      Chopra, S., & Dexter, S. (2007). Free software and the political philosophy of the cyborg world. SIGCAS Comput.Soc., 37(2), 41–52.

      Dijkstra, E. W. (1972). The humble programmer. Communications of the ACM, 15(10), 859–866.

      Kim, S. (2006). Capitorgs and free/libre and open source software: Toward critical technological literacy and free/libre and open source society. Educational Insights, 10.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  February 14, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      What I found interesting about this piece was the cultural statement it was making. Certainly, others have made these intellectual points. This piece is coming out NOW about contemporary events. Yes, Minsky and Papert foresaw today. This piece suggests that some of their points (e.g., about computing literacy become more common, and how that influences society and culture) may now be happening.

      • 4. alanone1  |  February 14, 2013 at 2:05 pm

        But if it is really a shallow view of what the great minds of 50 years ago were thinking, then we have awful “reinventions of the flat tire” over and over again to create a norm that is hard for most people to think beyond.

        It’s just another version of “fantasy football” and “designer jeans”



        • 5. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  February 14, 2013 at 2:49 pm

          In a superficial way, the impact of coding culture on society can be seen in the embrace of terms such as “open source” for projects not relate to code at all (or conversely an assumption and acceptance of proprietary practices elsewhere).
          The influences of code and coding practices at a more fundamental level might be articulated as – how are the root metaphors of computing impacting current perception, culture, and behavior?

          One can certainly see evidence of this in culture e.g. nerdcore (Mc Frontalot, YT cracker, and other nerdcore) and webcomics (XKCD, Abstruse Goose, etc.). However, (how) might researchers quantify this?

          There’s been a tremendous push for computational thinking (and related computing literacy) in the general populace (which hearkens back to Pea, Soloway. and Papert), but has there been an effect? How dramatic has the impact been? [These are non-rhetorical questions – I ask in part because I’ve had to explain the meaning of terms such as ‘parse’ in non-CS academic contexts.]

          • 6. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  February 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm

            It seems that “not knowing about code thus limits one’s ability to understand modern culture and science” could be evaluated (much more so than conducting a CS related semantic analysis of modern culture). One could analyze some number of the ‘most influential or important’ sources of modern culture and science understanding such as ‘Science’, the New York Times, the Economist, and so forth, establish a concordance of computational literacy related metaphors, terms, memes, etc. utilized over the last year (or ten). This would give a good baseline for determining the the computing literacy needed to understand the language of those in power (or however one might choose to describe it). This might, in turn, provide an interesting contrast to media designed for a broader populace e.g. Time, People, and so on.
            It sounds interesting.

  • […] nice piece arguing motivating computing across the curriculum and computing for everyone.  Next step: thinking about how to teach computing across the […]


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