Resistances to Code in Art and Design Foundations
Resistance 1: Code .edu Hype
This resistance is based on a suspicion or rejection of what Bill Joy described in 2000 as "our attitude toward the new...our bias toward instant familiarity and unquestioning acceptance." (link to wired article)
It is easy to become suspicious of any move towards code literacy since the overriding (e.g. well-funded) dialogue is centered around job training. In an article titled "How Big is Coding Right Now? A Programming School Just Sold for $36m," code is so big that commercial education is buying whatever bits they can get and venture capital is funding whatever they can. It's the "...growing 'code literacy' market." The “Year of Code” came and went in 2012, only for a few months for some, and it returned in 2014. "Over the course of the year we will signpost national and community tech events, crowdsource funding to help parents, pupils and educational organizations. We will commission detailed polling and analysis on how we can take coding far and wide." Code is buried under the same entrepreneurial spirit and dotcom start-up-speak that infests online education. It is not surprising that there is resistance to considering it seriously as a foundation of art and design education.
There is a moment when our students become intensely interested in our introductory code lecture. It is not when we tell them that it "is really simple to learn and anyone can do it" (we don't), or that they can be "creative with computers." What gets their interest is the intersection of biology, code and capitalism, in the form of the retail store Target.
In 2002, Target began investigating how they could use their massive collection of customer data to discover whether a customer was pregnant. As part of a discussion of loops, we discuss the power of repetitive cycles of code (iteration). The Processing void draw() loop runs again and again, sixty time per second. As Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace wrote of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine (as quoted in Charles Petzold's "Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software"):
"A cycle of operations, then, must be understood to signify any set of operations which is repeated more than once. It is equally a cycle, whether it be repeated twice only, or an indefinite number of times; for it is the fact of a repetition occurring at all that constitutes it such. In many cases of analysis there is a recurring group of one or more cycles; that is, a cycle of a cycle, or a cycle of cycles."
These cycles enables the collection and logging of metadata by the NSA, facial recognition and incredibly invasive marketing. When the recurring cycles are matched with code that looks for consumer behavior that indicates pregnancy, Target is able to market to women who may not have even told anyone they are pregnant. In the case of a Minnesota teen, Target not only invaded her privacy but inadvertently announced her pregnancy to her father.
The introduction of code to first-year, post-secondary students can be critical and connected to more than future job prospects. As we quoted in the last post, Anastasia Salter wrote, "a student who is only familiar with what others’ programs can do, and used to working within those systems, might never consider a solution outside those boxes." A critical approach introduces students to code in ways that suggest not only thinking outside the box but thinking about how the box is constructed, and who makes the boxes.
Resistance 2: (Merely) "a Specialized Field of Its Own"
In the first “Year of Code,” 2012, art historian and critic Claire Bishop wrote "Digital Divide," describing the lack of new media art in the "mainstream" art world. The essay begins by glossing over decades of new media art history in multiple art worlds, as "a specialized field of its own," so that Bishop can return to the "mainstream" and build the case for a "divide." The absurdity of this maneuver was likely invisible to the "mainstream" art world readers but it sent ripples through new media art worlds, not because it was surprising but because it made visible what we always suspected: new media is intentionally excluded from conversations regarding the (imagined) mainstream art world and in many places, including academia, people are ignorant about the practice of new media art and design.
The situation in the field of design is more complex because a longstanding relationship between technology and process in design fields exists. However, in many design firms, and in most academic design departments, there is a wall between the people who are designers and the people who write code. We participated in the zeitgeist development of web design and development from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, but the integration of code and visual design still stops at the line between designers and developers. As we said in the last entry, code is the oxygen that surrounds our mediated environment. Code drives the electricity flowing through our landscapes and code simulates the models of environmental collapse.
If code is considered outside the "mainstream" art and design worlds, is it outside the foundations of art and design?
The first issue is that "mainstream" is a concept without an coherent argument. Bishop's short description, and it is not unique, points to "commercial galleries, the Turner Prize, national pavilions at Venice," a collection of very specialized art worlds that only a very small number of people would consider mainstream. We are well past interest in the discussion of high and low art required to believe that this small art world represents, via audience or (their primary anchor) financial measures, any sort of mainstream. The most popular art forms, by both measures, are cinema and the emergent form of video games. Both are intensely reliant on code. As we said in the last entry, code is the oxygen that surrounds our mediated environment and code creates the billions of dollars spent to distract people. Code is not merely on the backend of the mainstream art worlds of cinema and video games, it has become the driving aesthetic. While our students may detour through galleries and museums, they carry around with them powerful, networked, code-driven devices and then return to a larger screen of some sort.
The second resistance is code illiteracy, and ignorance of new media art and design. The concept of code moves from the critical and conceptual position in the mainstream world to a "specialized field" in the "mainstream" art world.
We have an agenda, to increase the number of artists and designers who are using code. We know there is no need to indoctrinate students, only to offer them structured opportunities to encounter programming as a creative practice. There are resistances that need to be resolved before that is possible.
There is a common set of beliefs that are shared in the same way urban legends are kept alive. Many have been debunked already, like the idea that first year students arrive as "digital natives." Unfortunately, like urban legends, you still hear them touted as fact and used to buttress arguments against new media foundations.
Myth: There are well-defined, established, universal foundations for art and design practice.
What is currently being taught and why is it so incredibly disparate with contemporary media?
Myth: New media “techniques” should be folded into existing foundations.
Why does the discussion slide to where code could "fit" into the existing curriculum?
Myth: Creative Suite, animated gifs and social media constitute a new media art education.
Myth: New media “techniques” are no more relevant than studio techniques.
The specificity of coding is often compared to specific studio art techniques and approaches, ignoring the ubiquity of code in contemporary life.
Myth: Students do not want to learn new media…
There is an assumption that students will be resistant to learning code...
Myth: ...and they already know everything about new media anyway."
...but they already know everything.
The next few ArrayBitsBlog entries will address each of these myths.