In the Beginning was the Software Tool…
PLIDAM Laboratory, The National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO)
Citation: Farge, Odile. “In the Beginning was the Software Tool….” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 20, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/020.net03
Abstract: The digital environment constitutes a strong symbolic territory and gives the software tool a special importance. It allows the creator to pass from a profane world to a world where the language brings an incontestable power. And the practice (or not) of coding inevitably influences the production of the digital work. It conditions the relation with the software tool, which itself is based on the code. How do authors of digital literature seize this matter of the code to go beyond the proposals of the software tool, and what are the implications on programming practices?
Since the software tool relies on the imaginary to enter in a relationship with the author of a work, do the imaginaries mobilized by the software tool or the code determine the trajectory of creation of a digital work? In this context, what responses does the author formulate to the machine or the software? In other words, are the implemented strategies the manifestation of an awareness of the statement of the software tool or even an expression of a specific culture?
The essay also questions the role of Digital Literature through the prism of Digital Humanism. Humanism is primarily a critical posture that cannot be separated from freedom of expression or creativity. The recognition of cultural diversity sheds light on the humanistic vision that informs digital literature and shows how a critical and pedagogical approach is essential for an awareness of the rhetorical, and for defending and carrying the values and humanism of the digital model.
Keywords: software tool, digital literature, creativity, code, imaginaries, digital culture, digital humanism.
This essay’s title is an oblique reference to the title of an essay by the science fiction author Neal Stephenson, In the Beginning… was the Command Line, which provides an amusing discussion about matters such as operating systems and metaphors in a sort of treatise on digital culture. In a way, the essay focuses on the tyranny of operating systems and the consequences of such tyranny. The title is also a reference to the first verse in the Gospel of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The title, then, adapts the famous Bible verse in order to stress that digital environments constitute a strong symbolic territory, in which software as a tool acquires special importance.
In fact, the tool allows any creator or writer to move from a secular world to a world where language brings (and is closely linked with) power. Furthermore, how code is practiced (or not) influences the production of the digital work and conditions the relationship with the software tool, which itself is based on code. How do authors of digital literature understand code and go beyond the proposals of the software tool? And what are the implications with respect to programming practices?
I define software tools as either tools and software applications used in digital literature, or as creative tools used in digital creation. In this context, the author combines multiple roles required for the production of a digital work, such as creator, software tool designer, or developer. Given that software as a tool relies on the imaginary in order to create a relationship with the author, we can ask whether the imaginaries mobilized by software or by code determine the trajectory of creation of a digital work. In this context, what responses does the author formulate with respect to the machine or the software? In other words, do the strategies represent an awareness of the software tool statement or even the expression of a specific culture? Indeed, there is a difference between “proprietary software” where the source code is not accessible to the mere user and “open-source software.” The former kind of software is delivered as an “executable” version, for instance Adobe Flash. The usage rights are usually restricted, which is different from open-source software where the source code is open to everyone, and often “free” as referred to in the philosophy brought by Richard Stallman and applied within the GNU License (GNU Operating System).
Whether open-source or not, if we look at the interfaces used by creators of digital literature, we find that they often offer (and this is the case for Adobe Flash as well as WordPress) a coupling of text (code) and image (the Graphical User Interface). This coupling, partly intended to enhance a user’s appropriation of the software, changes and positions code, no longer as a simple tool but also as a means of preserving the author’s intent. Indeed, code sometimes allows the creator to bypass the prescriptions contained in the software tools. To achieve this, however, it is necessary to appropriate a certain number of skills.
When we look at the WordPress input interface (Figure 1), we note that it is possible to write in either the “Visual” view or the view that provides HTML access (redefined as “Text” view since version 3.5). This functionality integrates the idea that both novices and experts can easily master this interface at their own respective levels. If we have HTML skills, it is very tempting to choose this option and format the content through coding. The ability to read or even write in the “Text” mode helps to enhance the code but also seems to go against the very “philosophy” of the Content Management System (CMS), which is based on the separation of form and content.
Flash also offers this double access; indeed, this is one of its signature features. The properties and scripts window is available, as Figure 2 shows. The ActionScript programming language can be used to code instructions that can describe the appearance and behaviours of the elements posted on the main stage. Flash allows the user to draw and change a rectangle by just using the meta tools available in the palette, or to achieve the same result by just using lines of code.
At the symbolic level, we cannot ignore the fact that, behind each interface, there is a machine language operating a series of calculations in real time, sometimes without the awareness of the user. This internalization of the code by the machine results in a certain lack of transparency. We know that, to function properly, text and image must work in close interaction, and the code and graphical interface must combine to better clarify our representations.
We thus see the emergence of two different cultures of creation, mobilizing such concepts as “symbol” or “occurrence” in Flash, and mobilizing what I have called the “imaginary of spontaneity” associated with Action Painting – a movement in which Jackson Pollock was a key player. The software immediately produces visible and updatable results on the screen, unlike Processing, which mobilizes what I have called an “imaginary of premeditation,” that is an imaginary that assumes the artist already has a graphic representation of the expected result. The idea behind the art that underlies these two software applications is therefore quite different.
Let us then compare a simple creation of a Flash animation with the creative work carried out with Processing. On the one hand, in Flash, in order to create a circular shape or a rectangle, one simply selects the “oval” or “rectangle” tool and then clicks on the stage to “draw” it (Figure 3). In Flash, the creator can instantly see the result on the stage. An “imaginary of spontaneity” then becomes apparent through the gestures and interactions proposed by the software tool.
On the other hand, in Processing authors must think about the forms they will be creating before they actually start the process. In other words, unlike the spontaneity provided by Flash, a preliminary phase is required in Processing. In this instance, we could say that we are in the presence of an “imaginary of premeditation” in which artist-programmers must spell everything out and anticipate the visual display of their works. Before drawing a form in a “sketch,” we have to determine the size of our screen, assign values to the form, and define the fill colour of the form as well as the position and size of the circular shape (Figure 4). Finally, we need to set the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) colour system.
The following lines of code are required to draw a circular shape:
Above all, authors must imagine the space in which they will be creating by taking a reference point in the top left part of the screen to which they will assign a zero reference value. In addition to the linearity of the code-writing, which contrasts with the modularity of the workspace in Flash, we can see two different cultures of creation emerging. On the one hand, mobilizing concepts such as the “symbol” or “occurrence” in Flash, which call on spontaneity; on the other hand, the need to create a mental representation of the workspace in Processing, which mobilizes an imaginary of premeditation. To move the circular shape created in Flash, all that is needed is to click on it, and reposition it while holding down the mouse button. In Processing, it is the “abstract” definitional values of the form that have to be changed. This makes it difficult to know exactly where the object will finally end up. In Flash, we “draw” a circular shape and animate it. In Processing, however, we “write the pattern of the shape” by assigning speed values. It is therefore necessary to be very explicit and spell everything out.
And it is at this point that, according to Frédéric Drouillon, “we enter a realm in which writing makes us feel as if we are making something. The programming includes a ‘do-it-yourself’ aspect. The imaginary is partially based on machines that, to some degree, we mentally represent to ourselves as actual machines. And we dress these machines not only with fantasies, colours and shapes but also with research and reflection” (154). The act of highlighting these imaginaries by exploring a simple animation of an object in Flash or in Processing demonstrates the extent to which the software tool mobilizes positions in us, acts that are supported by imaginaries that sometimes refer to an idea of autonomy given to the creator. By mobilizing the imaginary of spontaneity, the Flash software tool designers “also take charge of the mechanisms for preserving it” (Metz 6). By taking an example from the movie industry, Metz shows that it sets up “devices designed and intended to make spectators ‘spontaneously’ want to go to the cinema and buy a ticket” (6). In our case, we could say that the Flash “proprietary software,” by inspiring users to be autonomous and creative, motivates them to use this software tool, which then becomes part of a market economy.
So, the question is: Would the access to code provide greater creative freedom? This crucial question also entails another one: Do authors of digital literature need to have an idea of how code works, or even be able to program themselves? Indeed, the practice of coding – or not coding – certainly influences the production of the work and conditions the relationship with the software tool, itself based on the code. How, then, do the authors of digital literature take control of code and go beyond the proposals of the software tool, and what are the implications of certain programming practices? We now know that this is a decisive factor in the production of works of digital literature. What do the authors think? What do they say about their coding practices?
In my research (Farge), I have interviewed sixteen authors with the intent of probing their perceptions of software in the creation of their digital works, but also with the aim of finding out how they understand the role of computer code in their creations. These questions produced a number of responses about their imaginative approaches and their positions vis-à-vis the code or the software.
Code as Language
We understand computer code as a “formal language” (as opposed to “natural” or linguistic languages). In practice, however, code moves beyond a purely informational definition, to a linguistic level. Code as language seems to be “necessarily” interesting for a writer who takes control of it, such as Juliette Mézenc, who is motivated by the possibilities that code promises. Although this author uses her publishing tool primarily for editing purposes, she has nevertheless reflected on programming. But code is also complementary to natural language and helps Christine Jeanney, for example, to “dress” her text. Although she recognizes that her knowledge of HTML and CSS is quite limited, code makes it easier for her to format her text. For this author, code is a way of formatting text; it then disappears, leaving the content. On the other hand, for Patrick Burgaud it is difficult not to be attracted, sometimes in spite of himself, by script that gives access to a form of expression which he qualifies as more “refined.” Yet J. R. Carpenter points out that code practice is often reserved for programmers, and she compares her knowledge of code to a foreign language.
Code as an Act of Creation
A coder may be a “virtuoso.” It is in these terms that Jean-Jacques Birgé defines the coder: someone who transforms and creates something magical from nothing. But literary authors cannot know how to do everything. They may need to know the basics of the code, without necessarily feeling the need to master it. Coding, even when done very modestly, does not make the author a coder, according to Arnaud Maïsetti, who knows “people who really code, a true coder.” Philippe Boisnard, for example, sees himself as a “true” programmer, someone who programs his code from scratch: “I leave the blank sheet and I code.” This author does not use any software and has been dedicated to writing code since 2008. For him, writing code is a part of the act of creation; Boisnard goes even further by stating that coding is a true act of creation. If the creator starts from an existing work, for example, as some authors do by copying and pasting code, the only way to make a unique creation would be to transgress the original work and transform it to the point of reinventing it. Code enables us to be as close as possible to the author’s ideas, and, for Boisnard, this is what software does not allow.
Programming an editor is useless when making a movie or a TV program because the software tool, such as FinalCut Pro, for example, is the most relevant thing at a given moment to do this type of editing. On the other hand, if I’m interested in inventing a novel form of mapping, I am then going to have to invent my own software. (Boisnard, qtd. in Farge n.p.)
What are the consequences of the above on the authorship of a work? The software tool is often perceived as a facilitator that is applied to basic functions only. The recognition of the role of the software tool in the author’s intent is not simple to define or even for the author to admit. The need for freedom and independence in creation is both a question of choosing the tool and maintaining a relationship with others. In fact, authors such as Birgé also ask themselves about the author’s intent in relation to the other human skills that may be needed.
But co-authoring means co-creating. Boisnard gives out the code. For instance, HP Process’s (Hortense Gauthier and Philippe Boisnard) Words City contains a module programmed by Boisnard.1 And on the very day of its programming, he revealed all the code on a coders’ forum, suggesting to interested developers that they expand, improve and appropriate it to create something new.
More than anything else, I am interested in how developers expand code. That’s why I prefer to give bits of algorithms because people are going to appropriate it, think about it and use it in their own way. That’s why I like the open-source community: people exchange bits of programming, saying, “here’s a clever trick for further development; how are you going to appropriate it for your own use?” (Boisnard, qtd. in Farge n.p.)
We understand how exchanges with communities produce new positions with respect to creation. Through coding, we would then be in a situation of co-creation, where we have to think of creation in terms of a human community, putting into perspective the notion of “author.” To quote Boisnard again: “[this is] a discriminatory and very political conception based on the relationship of domination” (Boisnard, qtd. in Farge n.p.).
Code: A Means of Domination?
The issue for many authors lies in the code-learning process, which is very important. Patrick Burgaud says: “After a number of years of intensive use, I get used to a couple of things and I am able to imagine how it will look” (Burgaud, qtd. in Farge n.p.). Burgaud does not define himself as a coder. Neither does Juliette Mézenc, who recognizes that learning code could allow for a better dialogue with a developer and help identify the possibilities available to her in the production of a work. On the other hand, for Jean Jacques Birgé it is important to “get his hands dirty” with code. What is fascinating about coding, according to some authors, is the number of possibilities it offers. They can develop their tools to suit the work itself. Indeed, only Philippe Boisnard could understand and approach the multiple windows that he composed for his work – all thanks to his knowledge of coding.
I would like to remind the reader again of the title of Neal Stephenson’s book, In the Beginning… was the Command Line, as I am taking the liberty of transposing it as follows: “In the beginning was the tool, and the tool creates the work, and the tool IS the work.” Creators who have achieved a certain level of programming will feel comfortable and have a greater freedom of expression. Fred Griot noted that he would like to gain a certain mastery of code but without feeling the need to create his own tools. Indeed, he does not feel that he is sufficiently “at the cutting edge of code” to be able to forego the software tool. But authors who do not code or who lack an adequate knowledge of code are limited to tasks or actions that others have thought of for them. Code gives authors the opportunity to express themselves and therefore takes on a political role. It is the ultimate freedom of the citizen to express himself. Coding is thus a political act in which the artist transforms a certain representation of the world, that is, another way in which the author can express his or her freedom and thereby become a citizen of the digital world.
Coding can be considered an act of resistance. In many ways, open-source software develops an exchange between users and developers and is based on a logic of community. Often included in the concept of “collective intelligence,” open-source software offers an idea of the power of action that the human community can develop at certain times. The figure of the hacker contains this political dimension of resistance belonging to a counterculture closely linked to the open-source software community.
Understanding the verb “to hack,” as it is used by Scott Rettberg (Tokyo Garage n.p.), is that it is an approach, a way to highjack code to test its limits. The interesting thing about this author’s hacking experiment is that it illustrates a certain strength of the community with value being placed on “collective intelligence” and code-sharing, leading people to create something new. This echoes the viewpoint of two workshops conducted in Ghana and Benin in Africa, in May 2016.2 At these workshops, we presented a quick overview of digital literature from a humanist perspective. No computer skills were required to participate in the workshop. And the audience actually did not know how to code. We introduced a certain number of easy-to-learn tools. These were used to create small productions aimed at stimulating this audience to want to experiment by themselves. In this way, the African students discovered a particular environment, and we were able to learn about their point of view and their culture. The participants were very open to digital technology and brought their reflections to the table along with new and original ways of doing things, including the integration of their oral and written culture into their works. This collaboration showed us the critical importance of cultural exchanges, which are certainly going to enrich the whole area of digital literature in the future. The first digital humanism residency has been organized in Benin in 2018 to support this initiative and to further our reflection about everything around the tool, the code, the humankind, and its communities. An international conference in Cotonou was also held for purposes of addressing social, technological and artistic challenges, as well as the potential of human-centered digital environments.3 The intention was thus to share reflections and tools on how the scientific community might be able to engage digital literature, writing, and other experimental practices in order to critically question our environments.
The role of code in digital literature needs to be questioned through the prism of digital humanism. Once again, the title could be transposed as follows: “In the beginning was the software tool and the coder was a citizen of the digital world, expressing himself and questioning the role of human beings in it.” Digital humanism is primarily a critical posture that cannot be separated from freedom of expression or creativity. The recognition of cultural diversity shines a light on the humanistic vision that supports digital literature and shows how a critical and pedagogical approach is essential to having an awareness of the rhetorical, and is crucial for defending and conveying the values and humanism of the digital model.
Coding, which authors perceive as a power issue, perhaps represents the most expressive way to reject the vision inherent in pre-formatted tools. For some authors, the use of code seems to be an act of resistance to the built-in discourse of the software tool. In this case, however – and this is what we meant when we talked about the notion of text-image coupling – code can be seen as a gateway to the software tool’s functionalities. Even more, writing code can lead to the same questions as those raised by the software tool, such as the presence of a code-heavy aesthetic in which writing practices question the authors’ political positioning. For some, taking control of code is a way to exercise their power as citizens in the face of a system that works increasingly for standardization.
Based on the work carried out so far, I believe that the strategies implemented by authors indicate an awareness of the software tool statements which some resist. The work that we undertake in the future, when seen through the prism of digital humanism, is likely to provide further proof of this.
During my Ph.D. research period I conducted semi-structured interviews with sixteen authors, writers, and digital artists, in both French and English, in order to collect and put forward their points of view on the issue of the software tool. These unpublished interviews are cited throughout this essay.
Drouillon, Frédéric. Chimères et gargouilles informatiques. 2003. University of Paris 8, PhD dissertation.
Farge, Odile. La “rhétorique de la conception”: pour une prise de conscience des stratégies de l’outil de création. Proposition d’une typologie de postures d’auteurs. 2014. University of Paris 8, PhD dissertation.
GNU Operating System. “What is GNU?,” gnu.org/home.en.html. Accessed 24 Jan 2019.
Metz, Christian. “Le signifiant imaginaire.” Communications, no. 23, 1975, pp. 3-55.
Montfort, Nick. Taroko Gorge, 2009, nickm.com/poems/taroko_gorge_original.html. Accessed 20 Jan 2019.
Process, HP. Words City, 2013, vimeo.com/49797656. “GalleryDDDL:: Chercher le texte | Words City,” 2013, gallerydddl.labex-arts-h2h.fr/fr/gallery/words-city/. Accessed 20 Jan 2019.
Rettberg, Scott. Tokyo Garage, 2009, retts.net/tokyogarage.html. Accessed 20 Jan 2019.
Stephenson, Neal. In the Beginning… was the Command Line. HarperCollins, 1999.
- “Words City is an interactive and generative poetic installation about urban toponymy, revealed through the participation of urban dwellers who use their mobile phones to send words that indicate their location by means of QR Codes scattered throughout the city. As these place names flood in, they compose a text on the screen that is as fluid and random as the urban wanderings of the passers-by. The installation invites spectators to become text-generating agents and, through their messages and travels, to activate the movements of the textual membrane composed of the numerous toponyms. In this way, Words City creates a dynamic, subjective and collective cartography of the city” (“GalleryDDDL:: Chercher le texte | Words City,” translation mine).
- These workshops were brought by the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), the Digital Humanism Project (UNESCO ITEN Chair), the Paragraphe Laboratory of Paris 8, the University of Ghana, and the Cerco Institute.
- Titled “Digital Humanities on Site: Engaged Networks, Technologies, and Aesthetics,” Mar 14-15, 2018, Cerco Institute, Cotonou, Benin.