Programming as practice

My notes on Yuill, S. (2005) Programming as Practice in J. Gibbons and K. Winwood, eds., Hothaus Papers: perspectives and paradigms in media arts, Birmingham: ARTicle Press.

What does it mean to program? In this intriguing paper Simon Yuill takes issue with responses to this question which reduce programming to a technical practice, reduced to its relationship to computer technology. He observes that the term derives from the Greek programma: ‘pro’ (coming in advance) and ‘Gramma’ (mark or line) meaning “a set of marks that ‘comes in advance’, anticipates and provides for something”. It’s a “form of mark-making that encodes and guides processes of production” sharing a common form with “architectural plans, music notation and textile patterns” (pg 87). In doing so, they also express aesthetics and new notional systems have been developed in order to facilitate aesthetic innovations. In this sense, if I understand him correctly, there’s an unavoidable relationship between the ‘programmatic practice’ and the cultural activity of which it is part. The notation itself can indicate technical possibilities which feed back into practice, as makers seek to realise a potential indicated by a notation system.

Programmatic practices record and communicative the assembly process of a cultural item, enabling that process to be “shared and communicated to others” (pg 88). As he puts it, “Where once craftsmen and architects would design directly into the artefacts they were creating, the introduction of programmatic practices enables designs to be produced in one location to be sent elsewhere and realised by other people”. For instance “Ibn Muqlah’s scripts were originally designed to facilitate the creation and use of written documents within the large bureaucratic system of the Abbasid empire” with their modular composition (I didn’t quite understand this: “the forms of letters were encoded according to a modular proportion based on a single dot”) “designed to increase reliability and ease of reproduction” so as to facilitate “transference of designs across distance and their continuation in use over time”. He uses the lovely expression, “the abstraction of design and plan from its realisation in any given medium” to conceptualise the possibilities opened up by this system of notation, including moving designs between media (pg 90).

The distance this affords and the reflection it encourages enables increasing complexity, though the artefact remains marked by the programmatic system on which it depends. He makes the fascinating observation that this underwrites structural distinctions, as occupational relations within organisations are determined by differing relationships to the programmatic systems e.g. “an architect and a builder, a composer and a performer, a designer and a weaver” (pg 88). This enables practices to spread, facilitating innovations to be communicated and standardised. As a corollary of this certain modes of encoding can come to be marked as legitimate, identifying a practitioner as an insider rather than an outsider or as belonging to a movement with a particular set of commitments. It is a deeply social process, by definition orientated towards others, not least of all because “encoding a process in an externalised exchangeable form” makes it possible for “that process to be inspected, analysed and critically reviewed” (pg 89). It also facilitates a movement “from poesis to praxis, from the immediate task of making to a more critically aware, self-reflexive interrogation of that task” (pg 89)

I found this article enormously thought-provoking, with its underlying argument being that “programming is not unique to computing” (pg 93) and that we miss the continuities which computer programming share with other forms of art practice if we fail to recognise this. New media facilitate an intensification and acceleration of programming practice, rather than marking a break with pre-existing forms (pg 94). Furthermore, the distinction between creators and users is breaking down due to the immense reactivity of the medium itself: the endless possibility for modification is not new but the ease and speed of modification is. This leaves us, Yuill argues, confronting programming as a site of ongoing production rather than the production of discrete artefacts. He ends by considering the new understandings of creativity and forms of creative practice these affordances might open up, liable to be missed if we remain fixated on the ‘technical’ character of programming. Much as other forms of programmatic practice are embedded in social structures, what is computer programming making possible and which of these possibilities are being realised?

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