Session I3: Under the Surface of Ubiquitous Computing: The Digital Literacy of Code
Annette Vee (University of Wisconsin)
Karl Stolley (Illinois Institute of Technology)
Annette Vee opened her talk with a straightforward, yet challenging, alignment of terms. In the 21st century, acknowledging the power of digital writing means acknowledging the power of the computer's most inherent medium: code. Programming code is a form of literacy; and code is the medium of expression for that literacy. To explore that literacy, she proposes reading the emergence of procedural literacy alongside a historical precedent: the technology of writing in the Middle Ages. Making several ingenious connections to events during the time of William the Conqueror in Britain, Vee demonstrated how – just as computer programming is today – the technology of writing was at first limited to a small group of specialized workers. What made writing (or written literacy) “stick,” becoming not just a monkish pastime but something more important to the society, was its political application, similar to how procedural literacy finds itself being used today as an instrument of “homeland security.” If Vee's historical analogue pays off, then we find ourselves at the moment where code-literacy seems primed to “stick” to us, creating the need for a wider conversation in academia about how we prepare students to understand the foundations of the technologies they use.
Karl Stolley's presentation then took the Soviet-era development of activity theory (an alternative to Anglo-American ego psychology) as a way of understanding code – the process of not just its actual writing, but of the larger-scale and more gradual formations of software projects. All too often, he argued, we tend to focus on the products of our work (making a blog or a wiki) without paying as much attention to the nuts-and-bolts processes (the latent coding stuff) that goes into making those projects work, largely because we lack a common metalanguage for describing the process of production. Stolley cited the open source community in particular as a place where the “metalanguage” of software development is constantly developed and rehearsed, and defended (echoing his Kairos piece “The Lo-Fi Manifesto”) the importance of using core technologies and languages like Linux and XHTML code. That kind of code-based awareness is a matter of coming to a kind of fundamental Aristotelian mastery over the technologies we study; moving beyond the surface understandings of WYSIWYG by getting to know the complexities beneath the surface: focusing not on what we see, but on what the audience ultimately receives.
During Q&A, questions tended to focus on the longer-term benefits of developing strong “code” literacy, including not only direct economic benefits to the student (improved job security through diversified skills), but also a greater awareness of the situatedness of digital artifacts. Echoing an earlier quote from Ted Nelson that tied the ultimate fate of democracy to the computer, both speakers spoke to how code literacy may lead to increased participation in the democratic process and greater “prosumerism” (informed consumerism).