Code-Mology

From magic spells to contemporary computing, this speculative imagination has always been linked to practical— technical and artistic—experimentation with algorithms. The opposite is true as well. Speculative imagination is embedded in today’s software culture. Reduction and totality, randomness and control, physics and metaphysics are among the tropes it is obsessed with, often short-circuiting their opposites.
Florian Cramer – Words Made Flesh

Code-Mology is a project that uses visually-complex images from hermetic symbolic systems to explain basic programming concepts. It challenges new design principles of simplicity and clarity in order to understand how much has been hidden from and made mysterious to us.

Overview

Life at the end of the 12th century revolved around one theme. One single thing only: God. Literature, painting, sculpting, architecture, politics and even health were oriented around religion. There was no field of knowledge at the time that was not influenced by the idea of God. This importance implies a huge effort by one single institution that felt very responsible to share and transmit all the necessary to be part of this system.

It could be very interesting to start by looking at some of the strategies taken by this institutions in order to educate its members.

The main challenge for the church consisted of the fact that most of its flock didn’t know how to read, write or speak latin. The concept of Schools or Kindergartens didn’t exist as we know them today. Knowledge was centralized around cathedrals and monasteries, where books were being copied. Most of the people participating in mass didn’t know what they were reading.

The answer to this problem was solved by using all visual representations in the form of vitraux, in order to explain the basic concepts around the creation of the world and Jesus life.

Even now we can see wonderful vitraux with very eloquent messages to any stranger. This unique way of communication provides an insight about the viewer at that time. Through these visual representations we can understand the psyche and social conceptions of these medieval humans and we can see a complex and mystical world, where God and his son Christ provided warranties and certainties to the lives of the people of that era. This was a dark world enlightened by the colorful illustrated glasses created by talented human hands.

In 1837, the son of a German Orthodox Lutheran Pastor was influenced by cathedral vitraux and conceived a new way of instructing. Friedrich Fröbel ( 1782-1852 ) laid the foundation of modern education based on the recognition that children have unique needs and capabilities. He developed an impressive set of educational toys call Froebel Gifts. Each gift was designed to be given to a child to provide material for the child’s self-directed activity. These Gifts are a series of activity-based playthings ranging from simple sphere-shaped objects and geometric wooden blocks to more advanced gifts pertaining to sewing, cutting, weaving, and modelling in clay.

The ideas of this impressive German Pedagogue influenced all of the academic and royal circles of his century. By the end of the 19 century almost everybody in the region learned and played with Froebel Gifts.

Juan Bordes suggest that these toys shaped the aesthetic perception of several generations, and could be responsible for the revolutionary design paradigm of The Bauhaus School.

The bauhaus Institute only operated between 1919 and 1933, but this brief period was enough to have a major impact on the art and architecture trends in the Western world.

Nowadays we can see the influence of Bauhaus’ simplistic spirit everywhere, from the London tube to the Apple Store. We have been able to witness technology’s transition from being mystical and complex, to becoming a simple and a stylish luxury product of design.

 

While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.
John Maeda – The Laws of Simplicity

The interactive interfaces of today are follow the long path humanity has been walking through these last centuries. As with the catedral vitraux, we can study current technological devices of mass popularity, such as iPods, in order to understand the type of users these artifacts attract. What have we lost from the process of interacting with art through complex systems, i.e through vitraux, after moving to these hyper-simplified devices?

 

To achieve these bright and simple interfaces, a big price has to be paid, and not just in an economic way. In their creation, a big part of the technology, as well as some interfaces options must be hidden. Everything about how these devices work has to remain in the shadows. Unlike the parishioners in the Gothic cathedrals, users today are easily frightened by excess of elements and long manuals. We lose the tolerance for all that is uncertain and unknown. Everything must be clear and simple for the modern user.

 

“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”
Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation and Other Essays

 

But the awful truth is that these machines hold a lot of complexity, much of which is ruled by logic and mathematics. In both of these fields people usually feel uncomfortable and locked out. Froebel’s dream seems to have been left behind. The mathematical beauty of these interactions is now invisible to the user: program languages and mathematical equations seem to belong to a new type of secret society.

“… algorithmic code and computations can’t be separated from an often utopian cultural imagination that reaches from magic spells to contemporary computer operating systems.”
Florian Cramer – Word Made Flash

 

Back to the old Gothic Cathedrals and more precisely to the building process of them a secret society was born. They called themselves masons and the knowledge they protected and loved revolved around geometry. But this wasn’t the first secret society: they are the latest in a long tradition of secret groups that gathered around a specific branch of human knowledge. Before the Masons were the Pythagoreans with Mathematics, The Alchemists with their Chemistry, and so on.

All these groups protected a hidden truth, just as today’s technology simplifiers hide the code and electronics behind the modern devices. What is interesting is that with these groups, in order to survive through time, they had to share what they knew, but not with everybody. That is how they learned to “code” and “encrypt” this “knowledge” in order to share it with others of the order. This worked with a initiation ritual where new members received a kind of key in order to re-interpret traces all around. The more keys one had, the more knowledge one could access, the higher level one are.

Today’s technology and these very specialized carriers and markets do something similar. But it was within the last twelve years that a new type of community has emerged. It’s one that works precisely in the other direction. It’s called the open source movement and it’s responsible for such important projects as wikipedia and gnu/linux.

These open communities make public the sources of programs, so they are available to everybody. But code is still code, which means “not understandable for everybody”.

 

“A code is useful if it serves a purpose that no other code can”
Charles Petzold – Code

 

This project’s intention is to present some basic programming knowledge in a grotesque way, by making the mystic aura of it obvious and at same time demystifying it using the same visual language of the dark ages.

 

[ Download the project application for OSX Lion or above  ]

References

Golan Levin, “Hobo-Codes” ( fffff.at/qr-stenciler-and-qr-hobo-codes/ )

Isahc Bertran, “Code { poems }” ( code-poems.com/about.html )

Suzanne Trister,  ”HEXEN 2.0″ ( www.esemble.va.com.au )

Bibliography

Cramer, Florian. Words Made Flesh. Piet Zwart Institute, 2005

Maeda, John. The Laws of Simplicity. The MIT Press, 2006.

Petzold, Charles. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software. First Paperback ed. Microsoft Press, 2000.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. HarperCollins, 1999.

Roob, Alexander. Alchemy & Mysticism: The Hermetic Museum. 25th ed. Taschen, 2006.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Soft Skull Press, 2011.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation: And Other Essays. 1st ed. Picador, 2001.

Stals, Jose Lebrero, Juan Bordes, and Carlos Perez. Toys of the Avant- Garde. Hudson Hills, 2010.

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