The results turned up some interesting questions about the complacency of education in the blackboxing of technologies. Enjoy!
The results turned up some interesting questions about the complacency of education in the blackboxing of technologies. Enjoy!
After my struggles to create successful BASIC programs on my own, I turned to education materials from the 1980s that taught teachers and students how to use BASIC. Once I had paged through a few, I realized that many of the resources expressed a larger ideology about computers and information society. For instance, one document listed “Applications” that students would understand by the end of the programming course. These included “Problem-solving Tools,” “General Use,” and “Impacts on Jobs.” The last caught my eye as a familiar refrain: technology and job readiness. I took a step back and thought about Apple’s interests in these curricular activities. They would obviously push for more and more students to be using their products, at school and then at home. If they train students to use PCs, which were already implemented in most businesses, they would by extension train the students to be good workers.
It was then that I examined Apple II and Apple IIe advertisements. I found several targeted to students and education, including a promotional video starring Steve Jobs, that praises the Apple IIe as even easier to use than the original, which was already in use “in schools” and “in education.”
For my final project, I want to examine the interrelation of the corporate and the curricular when it came to Apple IIe, one of the first ‘easy to use’ classroom PCs. I am curious to see the extent to which Apple’s promise that the Apple IIe was easy to use and the claims that the PC was customizable (aka “The Most Personal Computer”) actually translated into the computer literacy programs taught in schools. From what I can see so far, the answer is, not much translated. Most BASIC taught to students covers only the first 20 pages of a 200+ page BASIC programming manual entitled Basic BASIC. The materials also highly encourage teaching and using pre-existing programs rather than having students write their own.
The end goal of the project will be to make an educated guess about the impact of corporate vs. curricular messages and the actual experience of programming BASIC on the subjectivity of an Apple user.
Kittell, Linda, and Walczak, Joseph. “Computer Education Curriculum. Connecticut Vocational Technical School System. Version 4.” Connecticut State Dept. Of Education: Hartford, 1985.
I went back for more.
The Apple IIe’s BASIC system greeted me in the same way it did before (after some embarrassing mistakes putting the disk in the wrong way and getting no BASIC screen to pop up). And I came prepared this time. I had gone through another couple chapters of the Basic BASIC by James Coan, writing out programs in pen on notebook pages. While writing these programs, I tried the flowchart method Coan suggests to organize the information that would go into the program, before quickly abandoning it for my own information categorization methods. But my own methods sadly didn’t work. The programs that I tried to write based on the sample problems were wrong — I found the even numbered answers to the sample programs in the back to check my work. When it came time to actually program these written lines, even the odd numbered problem answers that I thought were correct produced wildly inaccurate results. Total, only two of the programs that I wrote on my own worked.
I cannot quite figure out what I’m doing wrong — whether it’s my lack of familiarity with the syntax functions or with the order in which the commands have to appear and be processed — and so I am going to immerse myself into how I would be taught BASIC if I were operating the Apple IIe in 1983, when it was released. I have a number of resources from the 1980s that were designed as instructional materials for teachers and students about BASIC programs, and I’ll be spending the last part of the class trying to learn what I can about the successful programming mind-frame, turning the journey into part of my final project.
I decided to look at text-based games in order to examine additional parallels between programming and writing. Since I wasn’t able to make it physically to the MAL, I searched online for a lab-at-home experience and found trusty old Zork. I had played it once a few years ago, on prompting from my boyfriend. I immediately became frustrated with the set-up: an all text game in which only limited commands could be used to explore the environment and interact with it. But I mustered through this time and managed to get into the house in front of which one starts, take a few helpful objects, and descend into the dungeon.
I had originally set out with the impression that text-based games were fairly similar to choose-your-own-adventure books and imagined that the writing for both would be similar (if you choose this, then this happens). Yet I realized that in a CYOA, the interaction of the reader with the text is limited by the very object in front of them. All the material can be viewed at any time by flipping through at will. The writing does not necessarily conceal, it merely parcels information, offering a few pathways to the reader while trusting them to not peek at anything that would spoil the adventure. Having phrased it that way, I suppose there are some basic parallels between the genres, yet at a more specific level, the writing is transparent in a choose-your-own-adventure, to the extent that what the writer writes is then what the reader reads and there is nothing extra required by the writer to get the information to display to a reader.
With a text-based computer/console game, in which the game code is not accessible to a gamer as they play, the programming has to be more precise and also differentiated. For instance, because I had picked up a length of rope earlier, I was able to use that rope to get from a high vantage point to the ground level by tying the rope to the railing in the top of the room and climbing down the rope. Without that rope, I will not be able to access other areas now, unless I climb back up to the top and retreive it, but I also would not have been able to find my way down without having the rope in the first place. The complexities of collecting and using items suggest on a surface level the complexity of the code underlying it. I found this confirmed by an online source. Someone on Microsoft forums asked for help programming a Zork-esque game, and an engineer replied with this:
“I recall that game. We had tried to implement it on a DEC LSI-11, and later on an Apple II because we didn’t have our own mini-computer like an LSI-11. At the time it seemed rather complex because it consumed all of the memory on the Apple II many times over, even with the memory expanded to the full 64K. Writing such an program to day would likely require similar amounts of source code, something that today’s PCs could handle with ease. But, such a volume of code is far beyond the scope of these forums” (“How to Make A Zork Game in Text”).
Last class, Devin made a good point that Kittler doesn’t take certain factors into account in his section about the typewriter, like print culture in previous centuries. I also noticed that with the concept of concrete poetry, some of Kittler’s assumptions about the typewriter also come into question, with regards to what it can represent. Kittler notes, “The typewriter cannot conjure up anything imaginary, as can cinema; it cannot simulate the real, as can sound recording; it only inverts the gender of writing” (183). I disagree.
During my last trip to the MAL, I tried out the big blue Olympia typewriter. I thought back to an art project I had undertaken as an undergradute, shortly after reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” My favorite lines from the poem were:
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
As an undergraduate, I wrote these lines on a blank sheet of paper and began to paint on the sheet. I created a red, gold, and black city, with figures like ants scrawled across the bottom of the page.
When I sat at that typerwriter, I thought of those words again, that picture again, and finally of “Pope Leo.” Whether I would create a scene from the lines or something different altogether, I started typing part of the poem, and as I did, I recognized the separation of my hands from the final result, connected only by key strokes. It felt no different from typing on a digital word processor, at first.
But then, as I struggled to feed a second sheet of paper into the machine, I realized that I could move the page however I wanted. I could type over letters, overlap them in a different line. I could change the orientation of the page and start typing in whatever direction I wanted. The grid structure that I had felt for so long from word processors was mostly gone, and the result was suddenly freeing. The representations in Writing Surfaces returned to mind, and I started to let the words drive themselves into corresponding shapes. The page that resulted is not one that I can share easily through this post. My wireless printer/scanner is not recognizing my computer on the network, and the ink is too light to be faithfully captured by a photo. But I’ll be sure to bring both versions to class. I’m even considering coming back to that typewriter in a future visit to the lab, in order to make something even less structured than the second page I produced.
Between examining the more established strain of concrete poetry that is out there and my own experience trying to reproduce it, I recognized that the page carries the baggage of certain concepts of ‘page.’ And language is still a set of arbitrary symbols that can combine and recombine. But with the ability to ‘break’ a typewriter so that its written standardization remains only in its character size and font, one can create something imaginary — something even like Swallows, which I think of as concrete poetry in motion. There could be some materiality aspect about concrete poetry which makes the comparison less than perfect, but what I am trying to convey overall is that Kittler’s argument, while it remains thought-provoking, is missing a few more creative elements.
In the 1983 book IBM BASIC, Donald T. Payne and William R. Beck identify that the goal of the book is not to simply present BASIC programming language and programs but to improve a reader’s problem-solving skills (v). They ask for patience while reading, distinguishing themselves from “too many instructional environments [that] are designed to spoon feed the learner” (v-vi) and call for experiential learning of the programming system. And so I used the book, in addition to Basic BASIC, published in 1970 by James Coan, to get some practice with actual programming. The result was quite exhilarating at times and baffling at others.
For instance, deleting a mistake in a program was oddly difficult at first. Basic BASIC is the book that I started off with and is essentially a manual of programming commands and the ways that they function. The chapters get progressively more difficult and include examples of programs and sample problems for the reader to create a program to solve. The basic math problems provided at the end of Chapter 1 were not difficult to program, but I found myself very confused about how to undo my work. At times, I was able to move my cursor back up into the line I had just written and type over some mistakes, but at others, I was unable to do so. I would hit the left arrow key and instead of moving up into the last line, it would hit the home position and create a bunch of new lines below it (see the pictures for what I mean). Next time I program, I will pay attention to whether or not I have hit “Enter,” which tells the system that the line is complete. I also was confused by the 1970 book when I went to clear an entire program (again, due to mistakes), but the system commands in that book didn’t work. CLE and SCR were both supposed to clear the program, but I checked in IBM BASIC and found that in the version of BASIC that I was most likely working off of – using an Apple IIe computer – DELETE was the proper command to use. The differences even between 1970 and 1983 were subtle but noticeable enough that I will have to be careful with which reference materials I use. Also, I need to look into the differences between IBM BASIC and Apple BASIC for purposes of working in our lab.
Trying this exercise brought up, for me, that I take certain “easy access” bits for granted – i.e. being able to delete something by just hitting the backspace key, instead of having to move the cursor and type over something, or having to use a DELETE command because I told the system that it was complete. I realized that the practice of programming involves a lot of checking one’s work before moving forward to ensure that the code stays in order and easy-to-follow (for code). I suppose I should work on that component that Payne and Beck call for — patience.
This exercise also instilled a desire to keep at programming. The authors of IBM BASIC have the following statement as an introduction to the nature of computers’ ability to perform “skilled language processing”: “the task is admittedly complex and would use much computing facility, but computers of the future will begin to exhibit these skills” (2). I want to see whether our current computers do have more sophisticated language processing skills, or whether it is simply clouded by a ‘user-friendly’ interface.
There is a dark line that appears at random latitudinal locations on my deposit slips at work. And occasionally, the scanned image of a check will stretch and warp as a corner clips into the edge of the scanner at the wrong angle and the check jams.
I work with people’s checks all day long. I work with a Canon scanner and a Canon photocopier/printer. The other week, I faced a paper jam in the printer and had to explore its innards (unsuccessfully, without help) to clear its digestive tract.
It wasn’t until reading Writing Surfaces that I thought about these pieces of equipment in terms of art.
For some reason, I hadn’t recognized the potential for process as product in art in my everyday life, even though we have been touching on it during almost every class. “Traces” in particular helped me recognize that the errors of a photocopier can produce an artifact that is itself a message about the media or any number of related topics. The dark, smudged copies tantalize a reader with the semblance of words, but they are so distorted that the reader can only guess what the text originally said. That frustrated understanding is an experience of the piece. I would be tempted now to collect and collage the various technological deviations that I find at work to study the ways in which even our financial media are shifting to reflect our identities, if I didn’t think I’d get fired (they probably don’t want me taking home check images or deposit slips). Then again, any ‘shredded’ media project could produce interesting or fruitful results towards a research question.
Drat. I keep thinking up a dozen new project ideas a week for this class, and all of them seem exciting in some way. It will be difficult to pick one idea to narrow further.
While reading through Chapter 9 of Zielinski’s “Deep Time of the Media,” I came across this explanation of an example: “Brecht’s Short Organum for the Theatre (1948) is a theoretical and practical plea for operational dramaturgy — that is, for a dramatic art, that does not invite its audience to illusion and catharsis but that encourages thinking to continue during pleasure” (Zielinski 259). This is found under the heading “Cultivating dramaturgies of difference is an effective remedy against the increasing ergonomization of the technical media worlds that is taking place under the banner of ostensible linear progress.” A mouthful, to be sure, and one that I want to take the time to unpack.
Part of this chapter heading is concerned with an idea that Zielinski debunks earlier on in his text, about the myth of linear technological and media progress. As well, throughout his text, Zielinski takes as an assumption that technology is highly standardized, which he laments limits some media activists’ access to information (255). As such, I find myself agreeing with Kittler that “‘media science’ (Medienwissenschaft) will remain mere ‘media history’ as long as the practitioners of cultural studies ‘know higher mathematics only from heresay'” (Kittler xiv). This was a quite disappointing and motivating realization for me. I think that studying artifacts of media is useful from a cultural studies’ perspective, but I ultimately agree that the technology itself and programming therein are even more important to study in relation to action and change. As a particular glitch artist pointed out, “Part of the process [of creating glitch art] is empowering people to understand the tools and underlying structures, you know what is going on in the computer. As soon as you understand the system enough to know why you’re breaking it then you have a better understanding of what the tool was built for” (“Glitching Files”). In order to understand the artifacts in the MAL or even in my own home, I find myself wanting to learn lines of code that result in interfaces and frames. I want to learn how to alter existing media and how to create new media that does not follow a standardized format. And I have a neighbor who creates applications for Android and Apple systems — I’ll see if I can’t get some information from her about the programs and processes that she uses and maybe learn a few things while I’m at it. (/digression)
I think that Zielinski’s idea to create dramaturgies of difference is a fitting solution. Critical thinking and awareness would seem to affront the standarization of code and components, the valorization of the magical/smooth/effortless technology, and the blackboxing that companies inflict on their products. If we agree with Jean Luc Godard that “designed or formed time must give back to people something of the time that life has stolen from them” (Zielinski 274), then we recognize that it is a danger that media consumers will simply allow the media to dazzle and occupy them without a larger thought or idea ever generated. Combatting this with awareness of internal processes and thought-provoking media could work.
I hope to continue this thought, with some basic knowledge of programming if I can manage, over the rest of the semester.
Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.
Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Trans. Gloria Custance. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
I spent some time in the Lab last week playing on the Vectrex. I know that we have had previous posts on the 1980s arcade system, but I wanted to explore one particular association that arose for me as I played.
When I was younger, growing up in the 90s, my family had a PC. My gaming was done to an extent on that PC; I had several of the game complements to Disney movies, including 101 Dalmatians and Pocahontas, but I also had games like Math Blaster and one particular game that I believe influenced my life course: Storybook Weaver. I am not sure how many people got into this program, but for those who are not familiar, here is the image from the opening sequence:
If you click on the picture, it will take you to the Wikipedia page for the program. I spent hours playing SW, making tales in the simple, kid-friendly user interface. Some of them were horror stories, other were about princesses and wizards. Whatever was available in their image banks was the seeming limit of what I could do, but even then, I had text to help guide a reader if the still image on the page seemed confusing.
Enter AnimAction for the Vectrex, a game created a decade before Storybook Weaver, but one that shares certain similarities with it and that contains certain drawbacks and successes that SW would never achieve. On the one hand, AnimAction allows for one to create one’s own avatars/icons/word art/etc. The created icons can contain up to 29 lines. And in fact, I took advantage and tried to create an image of a book, a ball cap, and an eyebrow (see below). This was my first desire – to create new images aside from the ones in the image library that came with the cartridge. I recognized this as a response to not having that option before in a game that allowed me to create my own story. Yes, the control and excitement of creating the story is a prize in and of itself – one that AnimAction and Storybook Weaver share – but putting your own images on the page has an irresistible draw. (Pun intended, I think?) What I found, with AnimAction, was that I didn’t even get so far as to putting together a multiple-scene story or animation. I was so excited to be able to create icons of my own to use later that I lost focus on the longer project. I wonder the extent to which my interest in the icon creation process is speaking to a larger desire for more control over my electronics and digital expression in a culture that seems to want to tell me the systems, icons, and characters to use.
But I suppose I should get to my other hand. Prior to AnimAction, I couldn’t say what the last game was that required me to read the manual before even clicking a button or using the tools of the game. The Vectrex’s four-button panel and light pen were mystifying without direction. Perhaps this is why the Vectrex did not do so well in the consumer market, being pulled from production only two years after its release. But from my own experience, I have a difficult time believing this; once I had reviewed the information on creating icons that was in the AnimAction booklet, I was able to create new icons with relative ease. My only limitations were generated from myself: not knowing proportions or how to create the illusion of a curved line using only straight ones. I would be interested to look at the PCs created and released around the same time, as well as additional gaming systems, in order to see the other features of electronics that were being sold and were becoming popular to a degree. I would also be interested to compare the media response and advertising used in the Vectrex creation and release with those of other electronics at the time. Doing so may help see what the consumer was looking for at the time and might illuminate the fate of the Vectrex.
I read the excerpt from “Post-Script on the Societies of Control” in my theory class my first semester in grad school. I recall being rather confused about what the solution was that was being proposed to remedy the degradations of self in capitalist societies. At the time, I asked about the laws and regulations that would have to change in order for capitalism to stop threatening the self, and the professor replied that I was thinking along the lines of “the mole.” But if changing regulations was not the solution, I wanted to know what was. And thankfully, we are revisiting Deleuze in this class. Another student in another blog post mentioned that he moves toward unions as a solution. I’m not sure if this is that case, not having spent as much time with Deleuze’s work, but I though about the possibilities further…
A recent post on reddit.com, categorized under the Sub-Reddit called “Explain Like I’m 5,” sought to explain why unions are good for workers. Ultimately, though, the post pointed to the dangers facing an individual in a capitalist society; when individuals are replaceable in a workforce, many of them cannot afford to say no to a job offer for a low amount of money. The post said unions seek to band worker together so that they can negotiate as a workforce for better pay, hours, and/or benefits. However, I haven’t seen very many unions. I’ve never been part of one myself. The ones that I do know about are not necessarily related to better working conditions. It seems that in a society in which Deleuze and Crary both identify as dividing oneself from society and, well…from oneself, trying to create and/or maintain unions is a difficult task.
I also wonder, after reading Deleuze, if another option for the remediation of self is for major capitalist powers to pick up manufacturing again. Deleuze mentions that “this is no longer a capitalism for production but for the product, which is to say, for being sold or marketed” (6). In America, we buy “the finished products” more often than we produce it ourselves. I’m not sure if having a more tangible relation to the production of products and the countries export revenue would affect subjectivity, though.
But I am looking forward to our lecture tonight about Deleuze to get some clarification and think through some options with my classmates… Huh. Never thought I’d type that.
Reading Between Page and Screen threatened to overwhelm me with a sense of how privileged the whole discussion of media archaeology can be, but then I got a little perspective. This threat occurred as I fiddled with my Windows Surface for the dozenth time to get the poem on my screen to an angle where I could read the top bit. Between my own frustrations with the technology I was using and the clever “POLE/PALE/PAWL/PEEL” word prism on one of the pages, I felt hyper-aware that the objects with which I was interacting were all part of a glaringly privileged vantage point.
In 24/7, Jonathan Crary identifies that the people “who cannot be integrated be into the new requirements of markets,” which is to say those who are unemployed, impoverished, or those living in developing countries, are condemned by capitalism (44). These individuals do not necessarily have the means to enjoy Between Page and Screen (the book website identifies these materials as a webcam and a browser). I’m not sure how these individuals would respond to the existence of the book as an exercise of modern technology, but I imagine them being affronted that time and resources are being spent toward enterprises like Between Page and Screen. But then again, I am in this Media Archaeology class, in this university – and I am writing this post on my gaming PC while sitting in a one bedroom apartment in Boulder. I am not in the most appropriate place to imagine their responses, one can accurately say.
With regards to the field media archaeology, while it has been accused of not being concerned with the wider politics of humankind, our class discussion on the 21st spoke about the ways in which the field is subtly rooted in human politics because the field is rooted in human culture. On the 21st as well, Prof. Emerson pointed to a passage from McLuhan’s book – about the inherent good or evil of an object – and we arrived at the idea that there are certain objects that are ideologically loaded, regardless of a user’s intent. I wonder the extent to which that is also true for media. Crary certainly does not seem too hopeful about media – entrenched as media is in the capitalist ventures of modernity, he claims that it deactivates its users (88). But even Crary ends his discussion in 24/7 with an appreciation of sleep and dreams, or more generally, private spaces less controlled by capitalism. In those spaces, Crary indicates, there is a glimmer of hope for the power dynamics established by capitalism to collapse (128). Whether capitalism at large is still in place or not, though, if one succeeds in divorcing technology/media from capitalism, then one is opening spaces for the thriving of what would usually become imagined technologies. If money was not the object – if raw consumption was not the object – then technologies/medias could be produced that are more varied and more representative of human curiosity and desire. In this regard, in the excavation of human reality and possibility, I personally find the field worthwhile and grounded, and that is a conclusion to which I need to come if I can to continue to study media archaeology.
Crary, Jonathan. 24/7. New York: Verso, 2013.