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.”