[NetBehaviour] Code Is Not Literature

Rob Myers rob at robmyers.org
Fri Jan 31 02:37:15 CET 2014

On 27/01/14 09:26 AM, BishopZ wrote:
> Well yes, I can be prone to both red herrings and McCarthy-esque
> oversimplification *smirk*. Sometimes I feel the subject requires
> interrogation.

COP 2 [TO THE ARTWORK]: Don't hold out, man, I can't control him!!1

> Aside from all that, I have had very poetic experiences with
> mathematical proofs. Goedel is the first to mind, but others too.
> There are moments when the rigor of the proof and lyrical way it is
> portrayed combine to simultaneously express a linguistic beauty and a
> literal truth - expressing beauty for both human interpretation and
> formal logic (as compilers).

Yes despite Alan's critique of my assertions I do hold to the idea that
this is (sometimes) all about the cognitive experience of *form*.

> The logical standards we hold mathematics up to, seem rare in
> literature (i am probably wrong here) - almost antithetical to the
> freedom of fantastical imagination we celebrate in many authors (eg.
> stream of consciousness). Yet, not dissimilar to the rigor of iambic
> pentameter.

I loathe "Infinite Jest" but it's clearly an attempt to *project* a form
through literature. All the action takes place off-screen, as it were.

> This relation between the standards of logical interpretation in
> mathematical proofs and the literal insight it provides is what
> interests me most here. PERL poetry and the like tend to be kitsch,
> and rarely express anything interesting on the computing side. It is
> usually bad poetry and in my experience, always bad code.

Agreed. But this is why I like Pall's "Microcodes" so much. They're a
pareto-optimal blend of code and expression where the execution of the
code is part of the effect.

> Instead of Shakespeare, how about Stephen King? Anyone remember the
> "call heard around the world" in Lawnmower Man? The Lawnmower Man
> existed as a hyper-being or virtual-being, thus his language and code
> were mixed, but more than that…

However it falls apart I do love Lawnmower Man for its SGI-era
cybercool. "Johnny Mnemonic" as well. I wonder if they're on

I think that "Synners" deals better with the uploading and loss of
humanity though.

> He threatened to speak a phrase that would be both the source code to
> call every telephone on the planet, and the words delivered to those
> that answered their phone. In the novel, this utterance combined
> computational and psychological effect - cross-compiling for both
> brains and routers.

In the beginning was the word:


Err I mean:


Again I prefer "Snow Crash" for its treatment of language hacking.

> Of course this is fictional, and there are lots of fictional accounts
> of "mind viruses" and the like, but we can look at multiple overlaps
> here:
> [1] written code increasing adopting natural language as it's form
> (Behavior-driven development, cucumber),

Cucumber is a DSL and resembles 1980s frame-based systems. I think that
general purpose natural language programming was most popular in the
early 90s with HyperTalk, Lingo and AppleScript. Applescript showed
that, whatever Perl may think, the ambiguity of human language isn't an
asset in constructing programs. Expressiveness and verbosity may not go
together, and English isn't everyone's natural language. There's a
repeating cycle of hope and disappointment for natural language computing.

That said, Inform 7 is amazing:


and you may be right about the current trend being towards natural
language. It's certainly towards DSLs and Rails-style generators.

> [2] programming languages increasing abstracting away from lower-level
> machinic operations, constantly increasing the computational power and
> functional sophistication of shorter and shorter code blocks
> (gentrification perhaps),

Lisp introduced abstraction from the Von Neumann architecture in the 50s.

Lisp. <3

I think the biggest win in expressiveness in the last few years was
Ruby. Which is based on Smalltalk (1970s).

> [3] physical manifestations of virtual computing power (ala new
> aesthetic) collapsing the differences between the physical and the
> virtual, especially in terms of what is "real",

"I'm not a Marxist, but..." TNA is a *socioeconomic* phenomenon, as
information technology logistics affects economics and war.

> [4] a kind of literary collapsing, as information technologies affect
> our vernacular, shift our mythologies, re-make what it is to be poetic
> (towards aphorism perhaps), etc,

Certainly computing as our enabling technology affects our self-image,


and while I'm not sure it's affected writing *directly* any more than
the telephone or the telegraph - actually no I think you're right, it is
affecting all of those things in the way you say.

> [5] and a psycho-social collapsing, where physical (distance),
> cultural and linguistic differences become smaller and smaller,
> globally.

This is happening at the same time as identity and difference are
assuming essentially supernatural roles in Western thought though.

> As we humans transition from using code to control electrical
> circuits, to computing machines, to information technologies, we also
> transitioning code expression (or network expression) into the wording
> of behavior, events and actions, yet still satisfying the requirements
> of mathematics and each layer beneath. And, in the best case, creating
> literary and cultural relevance, in both wording and function.

I do sometimes wonder if code art isn't just the corn dollies or railway
songs of contemporary workers.

> So yeah, Wittgenstein and and the psycho-geographic/performative stuff
> seems most on point to me. Better than taking a overly machinic or
> codified view. I do think it is about holding the work up to
> standards, multiple standards. Compiling and Executing the code is
> merely the beginning, and for the code to be as high quality as
> Faulkner, it is going to need more that good math and a clever
> punchline.

Faulkner's math wasn't that good. ;-) But yes this is all for human
beings to read...

- Rob.

More information about the NetBehaviour mailing list