January 21, 2009
I have a new essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (January 23rd edition) called “Hello Worlds.”
The reference, of course, is to the canonical Hello World program which we’ve all probably written in one form or another. The subtitle the Chronicle people gave it is “Why humanities students should learn to program.” That’s one of the sub-themes of the argument, which more generally tries to establish a connection between programming as world-making (or modeling), virtual worlds as literalizations of that ideal, and traditional concerns of literature and the humanities, which, I argue are no less relevant to virtual spaces like Second Life or WoW:
It used to be that we in English departments were fond of saying there was nothing outside of the text. Increasingly, though, texts take the form of worlds as much as words. Worlds are emerging as the consummate genre of the new century, whether it’s the virtual worlds of Second Life or World of Warcraft or the more specialized venues seen in high-end simulation and visualization environments. Virtual worlds will be to the new century what cinema was to the last one and the novel to the century before that. . . . Procedural literacy, which starts with exercises like making a snowball, will be essential if humanities students are to understand virtual worlds as rhetorical and ideological spaces, just as film and the novel are likewise understood as forms of representation and rhetoric.
As for the injunction to humanities students to learn to program, there are many routes to “procedural literacy” (a term I borrow from Ian Bogost and others) and learning to wrangle a C compiler is only one of them. In my own case, and unlike some peers in today’s digital humanities community, my skills are nowhere near enough to actually do hands-on software engineering. But I have dabbled in a number of different languages over the years, ranging from college courses in BASIC and Pascal to Perl and PHP to MOO-code and Processing. I believe that even relatively modest experimentation and engagement with programming can pay inordinately large dividends in terms of grounding more theoretical understandings of new media.
There’s also a sidebar on “Where Computer Science and Cultural Studies Collide.”
Posted by mgk at January 21, 2009 10:09 PM
I enjoyed reading the article Matt. I have to wonder how one defines the edges of the idea of virtual worlds. Are all programs virtual worlds? You point out that the "world" in "virtual world" is something like a model which selectively represents reality. Is an operating system a virtual world? (It contains "real world" objects like a desktop, a trash, files, folders, as well as "real world" actions like copying, deleting, and executing) What about a word processor? It models many different devices like a typewriter, a printing press, or a pencil and paper. It seems to me that the advantage of the computer is that the models can produce results that are difficult to reproduce in real life. I like the idea of code as a "rhetorical and ideological space." It shows how our notions of the world can be re-formed by its simulation. This all seems very Baudrillardian and I can't help thinking of Google maps where my world is often formed by maps and images long before I arrive.
This was tweeted today by @jafurtado http://twitter.com/jafurtado/status/1139225996 - I am the official twitterer for Recorded Books K-12 @recordedbooks http://twitter.com/recordedbooks, and I saw it. How cool! I had you back in 2005 for a hypertext class. I wish I'd learned programming, but I'm still working on self-teaching all kinds of webby things. You finally forced me to learn HTML back then, and it's served me well!
Small world (or something).
Hi Jennah, I *think* I remember you! Thanks for the virtual hello. Nathan, that's an excellent question about the boundaries of virtual worlds. Part of the issue here, I suspect, is semantics. Clearly not everything digital can be a virtual world, otherwise the term has no meaning. Devotees of functioning virtual worlds like WoW have various criteria for defining and discriminating amongst types of virtual worlds, for example persistence (does the world continue on when you are logged off?) A program to manage a retail inventory is not a virtual world in this sense. At the same time, to the extent virtual worlds collapse into the broader idea of modeling, I would hold to the idea that all programming is a form of world-making.
Part of the issue here may also stem from the overwhelmingly vocational approach to pedagogy that is, I think, probably still typical of many people's first contacts with computer science. Success is defined by whether the program works (or whether the Web page parses). One of the things I admire about Randy Pausch (who I mention toward the end of the piece) is that he had clearly evolved a much more expansive view, where the failures and messes could be as much fun as the successes because it's the process that counts most. (That said, I've read Randy was also infamous for a zero-tolerance policy during his students' demos--if the world didn't work, no second chance!) I like virtual worlds like MOOs and Second Life as environments for giving students a taste of programming, because partial success is both possible and visible (legible). Instead of a run-time error, you get a snowball that won't melt, or maybe one that swells in size instead of diminishing (which is a lot more fun, now that I think about it). Anyway, the point is that if I had more sandbox and less late capitalism in the metaphors behind my early programming courses I think I might have learned a lot more from them.
I am honored to be possibly remembered :) I had you in either 2004 or 2005 I think. Might've been the first installment of that one class, iirc.
I am proof positive that an English major can
1) find work in the field and not be a teacher (for a publisher, in my case).
2) be very, very well served by good knowledge of technology, since I've somehow become the internet/computer guru for my division here.
It used to be that we in English departments were fond of saying there was nothing outside of the text. Increasingly, though, texts take the form of worlds as much as words. Worlds are emerging as the consummate genre of the new century, whether its the virtual worlds of Second Life or World of Warcraft or the more specialized venues seen in high-end simulation and visualization environments. Virtual worlds will be to the new century what cinema was to the last one and the novel to the century before that. . . .
I'll say more about this when I think it through more on my own blog, but this is so totally right on. I've been trying to explain this to people in my graduate program but I never can quite get it right. This article will definitely be forwarded by me to others here.
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