Nick Montfort responds

Nick Montfort responds

2004-03-19
Riposte to: 

Computers abstract from true/false to host letters, pixels, and Nick Montfort’s riposte.

There is no denying John Cayley’s statement, “[t]he way my algorithms and I string letters together to make words and lines generates significance and affect far more quickly and with far greater cultural moment than the way my algorithms and I string pixels together.” Although others may focus on pixel-manipulations and achieve art of interest, in Cayley’s recent work it is the transformation of letters that drives a passage through languages and meanings. In my own orthographically constrained work I have found that the literal level can provide a foundation, perhaps even a framework, for provocative work.To make clear the importance of the letter vis-a-vis the pixel in my own work, I should note that my interactive fiction works can be played on a teletype, without any pixels involved at all. My heart is persuaded by the art he has generated; I only think that in demonstrating that the materiality of letters is indeed intrinsic – and not accidentally, engaged with computerized cultural production – Cayley has understated both the role of other discrete abstractions and even in certain ways the influence of the letter itself. Claims of “no software” notwithstanding, there are two levels beneath the literal, but above those of voltage difference, in computing: those of digit and logic. There is also an important level high above letter and pixel both: the context in which signifiers and visual representations are received.

Literature certainly shares, as Cayley writes, the “defining qualities of the digital.”I have registered my agreement on this point already: “a text is a number with typesetting symbols as digits, so it is digital.” [Montfort 1995] But although literary production may lead the way for computer art due to its early experience with discrete manipulations, number also provides an intrinsic, not accidental or historical, way of representing text on our mathematically-architected computers. Furthermore, even the digit is not the true basis of software. It is “true” and “false,” not 0 and 1, that are the fundamental abstractions of computing. Claude Shannon’s joining of Boolean algebra and voltage difference enabled digital computing. So the computer is essentially a logical device upon which arithmetical and then textual symbol-manipulations are implemented; although logical and arithmetical cultural production has been slim,I do not consider literary work that involves logic, as exemplified by Lewis Carroll’s work, to be “logical cultural production,” but certain mathematical recreations do count as arithmetical cultural production. John Conway’s Game of Life is a fine example. It was a direct influence on SimCity and the genre of games that followed it. it should be recognized that letters rely on digits and digits on truth-values. I am not suggesting that logic or arithmetic, rather than poetics, will provide a framework for digital art. Rather, I hope the development of a poetic framework will consider the letter’s place in computing.

Because letters are built into words to provide great powers of abstraction, they have, following the development of the compiler by Grace Murray Hopper and others, enabled today’s high-level programming languages and operating systems – the great-great grandchildren of alphabetization, which first applied an algorithm to letters. Programming languages are used to create software, including pixel-manipulating software. This too is no accident but follows from language’s suitability for creating complex algorithms in general, not only when the data to be manipulated is textual. Those graphical programming environments which exist were themselves all ultimately created with textual programming languages.

A bit of orally-transmitted wisdom tells us how many words a picture is worth, but how many letters is a pixel worth? The answer does not depend on screen resolution and font size, but on what Cayley calls cultural moment: it takes only 33 letters and spaces to render “Thou shalt have no gods before me”; 58 of these text elements provide “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” The ubiquitous Nike swoosh, and even the most powerful image from the 1990s that comes to mind – the grainy televised image of an unarmed Chinese student standing down a column of tanks – would be hard-pressed to compete with these influential remnants of written culture. But the power of all of these examples comes from the context in which they appear and are interpreted, not just our “environment of everyday languages” but the totality of our culture. However alluring the image may be, Western cultures remain cultures of written law, with a tremendous supply of books, newspapers and magazines. On the television news, the anchorpeople hold papers on their desk in front of them when relating news. We “write” computer programs. Literature, and literal art, remains significant not only because they provoke us and enlarge our experience but because we live surrounded by texts and textual activities in which this art resonates.

Johanna Drucker responds

John Cayley responds