Subtitled “Coding as aesthetic and political expression”, I found this book in Blackwell’s in Oxford, and it instantly appealed as one who has made his living primarily from voice and code. The colourful cover also appeals, and pleasingly it too is a program, in the colour-notated language Piet.
The book’s subtitle is “Coding as aesthetic and political expression”, and the book sets out to connect coding to voice, and to analyse how the advent of ubiquitous computing affects notions of action, work, voice and speech.
For someone with little background in the relevant political, philosophical and literary background, which as far as I can tell rests primarily on Marx and Arendt, and more recently Virno, with a liberal sprinkling of French post-modern philosophers and the ever-present Žižek, Cox’s language, references and style are all hard work, and from a left-wing humanities culture I’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of. But the functional code (mostly McLean’s; there is also code poetry, which is fun but, I think, less interesting) is clear, playful and technically thought-provoking. One example patches the Linux kernel to make the machine slow down when it is busy; another tries to say “hello” to every server on the internet (since it’s IPv4, this could be read as a “Last Chance to See” style of greeting!), a sort of polite and manic code-cousin of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. In the first case, it’s interesting to think of the implications of making a machine behave more like a human; in the second, to wonder how likely one would be to fall under suspicion, or even arrest, for running an apparently harmless script. Other hacks attempt to follow all your followers’ followers on Twitter, or to defriend all your friends while inviting them to meet each other in the flesh.
We are treated to a deep dive into the Hofstadterian strange loop that code sets up between speech and action, described in the introductory chapter 0 as “double coding”, the difference between what humans and machines make of a program, not forgetting its comments.
As a result, the final impression that the book is both too long for the limited message it does convey, and too short for readers lacking background in one of its two sides (there are plenty of unexplained technical references that will baffle those without a considerable grasp of computing). This is a pity, as the authors clearly have both the knowledge of and sympathy towards both sides of the subject required to write a compelling book, and education in this area is sorely needed, both by the mass of codeworkers who are by and large politically inert despite being highly educated; and, perhaps to a lesser degree, by political activists who despite being technically savvy have perhaps failed to grasp quite how fundamentally computing has changed the nature of the game.
Ridiculously for a book in MIT Press’s “Software Studies” series, and doubly for a book that contains source code, there is no electronic version or accompanying web site. Many of the sites referred to in the book seem to suffer from the same insouciance towards preservation, which seems oddly prevalent among digital artists given the lengths to which more traditional workers go to preserve their œuvre. A smaller gripe (which is by no means unique to this book) is that the endnotes comprise both references and expansions on the main text, resulting in a lot of pointless flipping back and forth to the former in order to catch the latter. Rarely have form and content been so out of whack.