July 14, 2005

Reading Processes

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 6:39 pm

Part of the argument for procedural literacy (Michael’s article, my reply) is that we must learn to “read processes.” That is, we must learn to interpret the operations of systems… not just the outputs. There are a number of reasons for this, a few of which I’ll briefly sketch here.

First, as Ted Nelson began arguing in the 1970s, we’re living in a world increasingly defined by processes — processes designed and implemented by humans. These processes can be designed poorly, or implemented poorly, or designed and implemented to help some people and make life difficult for others… but this is the fault of humans, and it can be corrected (and sooner rather than later, if we can learn to spot bad designs before they’re widely adopted). To put it another way, “the computer just works that way” is a non-argument. The importance of this knowledge lay behind Nelson’s now-famous cry from the front of Computer Lib / Dream Machines: “You can and must understand computers NOW.”

Second, more specifically, we’re entering a period in which the results of computational processes are increasingly used to form assumptions or offered as evidence. This is one thing if we’re forming our assumptions about whether the weekend will be sunny while we’re trying to decide whether to have a picnic — but the results of computer simulations are also increasingly used when we’re in the process of trying to make more weighty decisions about matters such as city planning and greenhouse gas emissions. To take one of my favorite examples, Jay Forrester’s urban dynamics simulations (which inspired SimCity) can be used to try to figure out how to build a healthy city, but we need to view any results from his work through an interpretation of the structures and processes of the simulations — which Garn and others have argued are deeply flawed (for example, by their cities’ lack of dynamic interaction with suburbs). We need to learn to ask questions of the designs of simulations that are analogous to the questions we ask when presented with other forms of evidence (e.g., Was the study double blind? What’s the n?). Unfortunately, because these questions will often have to do with the unexamined assumptions of the simulation’s designers, it may only be possible to pose such questions after literate and informed examination of the simulation’s processes.

Third, and I think this is particularly close to the heart of many of us who read and write at GTxA, we’re increasingly using computational processes as a means of expression — from electronic literature to computer games to net art. Just as careful reading of exemplary literature is central to the development of most writers, so careful reading of processes is important to our development. Those of us with some computer science coursework under our belts have learned something about reading processes in terms of things like computability and efficiency. And those of us who’ve spent some time around computing subcultures have probably learned something about reading them in terms of elegance (see Nick’s writeup of The Art of Code). But we’re only beginning to learn to read processes in terms of what they express.

Which brings me to my topic. I’m looking around for examples of people who have done these sorts of interpretations of processes, and I’m guessing I will find a number of useful examples in writings about process-based arts (which may or may not involve digital computation) — though areas such as system dynamics clearly also have relevant work within them. To start things off, tomorrow I’ll share some of my observations from reading Marjorie Perloff’s Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991). I’d be happy to hear people’s comments on what I write there, and also hear any suggestions here for other examples of interpreting processes that I might look into.

9 Responses to “Reading Processes”

  1. andrew Says:

    I’ll be very interested to read what examples get listed. My own knowledge of the literature on this is limited, so I’ll be learning from this.

  2. mary Says:

    hi, well…critiques of science engage in the analysis of process (Kuhn, Latour, Harding, Fox Keller)& I think these are particularly applicable to exploring computer arts — and opening up CS and computational logic processes to larger investigations of epistemology. Some geographers have critiqued processes involved in simulation and visualization (Kwan @ ohio state). hope this helps!

  3. Matt K. Says:


    Johanna Drucker’s Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity is brand new from Chicago and I suspect probably relevant (haven’t looked at it yet though).

  4. mary Says:

    oh goodie will look for her new book! thanks matt

  5. noah Says:

    Andrew — thanks for the encouragement!

    Mary — sounds great. Have you any specific titles you’d suggest starting with, or any excerpts to share?

    Matt — I appreciate the suggestion. I’ll email Johanna and see if I might be able to get a copy to review here on GTxA. It’s good to get the word out about new books.

  6. WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Kelmscott 1/2: On Designing AND Making Says:

    […] d a workman who is an artist. Morris’ view could be considered in the development of contemporary texts on procedural literacy. Every person who builds something &#8212 […]

  7. mary Says:

    oh yes. I forgot to put more info here for you. Its that sleepy summer breeze in new england! First, Thomas kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions. Great.
    Second, So… for bruno latour, i heart wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruno_Latour. try science in action for a book; he’s written myriad articles.
    For Harding, Haraway, and Fox Keller, the main feminist crits of science/process, here’s an overview fo feminist epistemology, which heavily informs crits of science / vice versa. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-epistemology/. Fox Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science (1985) rocks. In Secrets of Life/Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender and Science (1992) she critiques scientific discourse, specifically evolutionary discourse and genetics.

  8. Jessica Pressman Says:

    As I mentioned in person, I would suggest Rita Raley’s article in PMC (2001), “Reveal Codes: Hypertext as Performance.” Raley
    reads electronic literature as a real-time performance: “Meaning happens in the exchange, but the exchange can never be fixed—it just happens.” This is why she, and I believe Joe Tabbi, suggested that critics addressing digital works reassess the critical practices of drama, dance, and music critics (see their comments from the Multimedia Criticism Panel from the ELO State of the Arts Symposium, published in the book that Scott
    put together).
    hope that helps.

  9. Grand Text Auto » Christopher Strachey: The first digital artist? Says:

    […] his day. And, as I have been arguing under the heading of “reading processes” (1, 2, 3), we need to recognize this as a potential site of literary creativity.

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