Programs aren’t models of the world but takes on the world
December 14, 2016 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Programming is Forgetting: Toward a New Hacker Ethic - Allison Parrish In the process of programming, or scanning or sampling or digitizing or transcribing, much of the world is left out or forgotten. Programming is an attempt to get a handle on a small part of the world so we can analyze and reason about it. But a computer program is never itself the world.

You can create art and beauty on a computer. Computers can change your life for the better. I think if there’s anything to be rescued from hacker culture it’s these two sentences. These two sentences are the reason that I’m a computer programmer and that I’m a teacher in the first place.
posted by CrystalDave (19 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Boguslaw's The New Utopians made similar points a generation ago.
posted by phrontist at 10:47 AM on December 14, 2016


But a computer program is never itself the world.

Except in a certain well-known science fiction story.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:49 AM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


But... according to cutting edge theoretical physics (at least in the popular science press) the world is emergent from yet even tinier than imaginable "strings" that are kinda discrete/digital which implies that the universe is a program/hologram on top of what's actually "real". Or something.
posted by sammyo at 10:55 AM on December 14, 2016


This was great. Although it struggles perhaps too much to save the term "hacker", which was dead shortly before esr's self aggrandizing codex and pg's sales pitches.
posted by smidgen at 11:09 AM on December 14, 2016


Boguslaw's The New Utopians made similar points a generation ago.

Plus: Simulacrum, Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, etc.

This talk (transcript) annoys me for some reason, like it's undergrad substance described in postgrad words. Feels TED-y, but this was at a hardware conference, so I don't get it.
posted by rhizome at 12:00 PM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


I much prefer the question-based revision that the writer came up with. So much of hacker culture ignores or excludes the "people we don't know", so it's okay for your policy decision to break usability on a program because "they're only users". Why yes, I have recently upgraded Ubuntu and seen what it's done to the file manager …
posted by scruss at 12:15 PM on December 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've become increasingly disillusioned with tech lately, and Allison is hitting really hard on some of the reasons why. That so much Valley culture is drawing upon the "Hacker Ethos": putting a priority on code above all, assuming that all tech people are inherently logical and rational, that their code is therefore free of any inherent biases, and that anyone who isn't writing code is essentially worthless... with all the inherent sexism, racism, and other exclusionary bullshit that comes with the territory. This combined with the big business aspects of tech, data collection and the selling of that data for ads, for example, make me increasingly frustrated.

The "Hands-On Imperative" shows every time a tech company "disrupts" an industry and puts people---typically the disadvantaged---out of work. The only solution they offer is just "learn to code" and goddammit, not everyone wants to code, not everyone needs to code, and not everyone should code!

Personally, I don't code, unless HTML counts, and I'm less and less interested in coding. Which is a shame as one of the few things in the tech world I find appealing are the people around the fringes, much like Allison, who create tech art. (Ms. Parrish, by the way, is the creator of the infamous @everyword Twitter bot.) But I can't pretend net art will change the damn world.
posted by SansPoint at 1:12 PM on December 14, 2016 [5 favorites]


(I ran into Allison briefly in London this summer: Hi Allison!)

I think this talk is really digging into some of the faults of Hacker culture & that’s a good thing. The anecdote about Margaret Hamilton in particular is a) depressing and b) totally on point about Hacker culture & it’s massive cultural blinkers.

For me though, the whole “the map is not the territory” bit doesn’t quite mesh with the “replacing Levy’s tenets of Hacker culture with a new set of principles” bit; I couldn’t see how one was supposed to follow from the other. (It doesn’t help that the signal processing example is seems wrong - the graphs shown are simply not representative of how signal processing actually works - in fact they’re actively misleading.) Maybe I’m missing something?

I do completely agree that if there’s anything we should take from Levy’s book to carry forward into the future then, as Allison says, it’s those last two ideas: 1) You can cre­ate art and beau­ty on a com­put­er & 2) Computers can change your life for the bet­ter. Words to live by, for some of us perhaps.
posted by pharm at 2:03 PM on December 14, 2016


MeFi's own.
posted by brainwane at 2:12 PM on December 14, 2016


People interested in more of Parrish's work on signal compression: her !!Con talk on lossy text compression (video).
posted by brainwane at 2:19 PM on December 14, 2016


some­thing from the orig­i­nal sig­nal will always be lost

i thought that wasn't true for bandwidth limited signals, as long as you sampled at (or past) the nyquist frequency?
posted by andrewcooke at 2:37 PM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Good stuff.
posted by wildblueyonder at 2:38 PM on December 14, 2016


well, now i've got to the end, i like this. the questions are good - the kind of things you ask yourself every day (i don't mean i am a saint who cares about inclusiveness - they're critical even if you want to do even a basic job).

the paper talks about how any­one who has actu­al­ly tried to tran­scribe a con­ver­sa­tion knows that spo­ken lan­guage con­sists of fre­quent false starts, rep­e­ti­tions, dis­flu­en­cies, over­laps, inter­rup­tions, utter­ances that are inco­her­ent or inaudi­ble or even pur­pose­ful­ly ambigu­ous.

oh dear. but that's certainly false. it's a known fact here on mefi that this is only true for donald trump.
posted by andrewcooke at 2:47 PM on December 14, 2016


i thought that wasn't true for bandwidth limited signals, as long as you sampled at (or past) the nyquist frequency?

This is true, but then if your input signal is not bandlimited you do need to decide what to leave out (i.e. where to lowpass and correspondingly where to set the sample rate) so that the magic works from there.
posted by atoxyl at 3:27 PM on December 14, 2016


See also Ullmann's Close to the Machine.
posted by clew at 3:40 PM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


This was great. Although it struggles perhaps too much to save the term "hacker", which was dead shortly before esr's self aggrandizing codex and pg's sales pitches.

Awwww, fuck those guys and everything, they are assholes, but I think there's plenty to be rescued from hacker culture, and plenty of value in the exercise, though it'd probably be a mistake to get too bogged down in it.

Anyway: Cool to see this up. It was probably my favorite talk from this year's Open Hardware Summit, which was all around a pretty good set of talks and a bunch of cool people. (My SO was on the OSHWA board and helped organize, so I kinda went along by default, but I was really glad I spent the time.)
posted by brennen at 3:53 PM on December 14, 2016


People interested in more of Parrish's work on signal compression: her !!Con talk on lossy text compression (video yt ).

It's so weird to me to see !!Con mentioned as though people know what it is. Maybe they do. Whole thing got started when I made a jokey comment in a chat service about starting a con, and some (much more intrepid than I) folks thought, hey, that's a great idea, and ran with it.

Best part was when one of the founders-to-be accidentally registered bangbangcorn.com instead.

I haven't even managed to attend a !!Con, but it makes feel happy and surreal whenever it's mentioned.
posted by unknownmosquito at 4:18 PM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


The Ursula K. Le Guin essay on utopia she links to is a good read, too.
posted by clockwork at 7:52 AM on December 15, 2016


All models are wrong, but some are useful.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:59 PM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


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