June 4, 2003

Meaning machines

by Michael Mateas · , 11:42 am

Andrew raises the question of whether artists should program. The answer is yes. Here’s why.

Computers are not fundamentally about producing 2D visual imagery, video, or 3D models (everything taught in the typical into to electronic media classes).

Computers are not fundamentally about responding to the input of a user/player/interactor (computer-based interactive everything).

Computers are not fundamentally about controlling motors, lights, projectors, or other electro-mechanical systems (installation art, robotic sculpture).

Computers are not fundamentally about mediating signals from distant locations (telepresence).

Fundamentally, the computer is a meaning machine. Inside the computer, long meaningless chains of causally-linked physical events take place. The magic lies in the fact that these meaningless events inside the machine can be connected to the world of human meaning – correspondences can be established such that we can read the computer’s behavior as meaningful.

Programming is the activity by which the meaningless mechanical activities of the computer are given meaning. To really be able to manipulate the computer as a medium (to make the computer mean anything) requires programming.

Now I’m not saying that tools are bad – Photoshop, Premier, Flash, etc. are certainly useful. And of course I’m not saying that artists who only use such tools aren’t really artists. But each tool encodes (literally) a specific representational framework, a specific way of relating to computation. To only use such tools is to be perpetually trapped in other people’s frameworks, to never truly touch the medium.

It is common for artists learning new computer tools to find the process painful and difficult – and unfortunately to find the process of learning to program even more so. There’s a reason for this. Meaning is culturally dependent phenomenon – so of course the meaningful correspondences encoded by any given program will be culturally dependent. C.P. Snow, in The Two Cultures, introduced the simplistic yet handy dualism of the Freaks (artists and humanities types) and the Geeks (science and engineering types), arguing that these two groups really had two different worldviews, two different cultures. And who’s writing most of the tools and languages that artists are learning (hint: it ain’t the artists)? All the more reason for artists to program.