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Nick Montfort and colleagues reveal the stories in BASIC code
"Like a diary from the forgotten past, computer code
is embedded with stories of a program’s making, its
purpose, its assumptions, and more. Every symbol
within a program can help to illuminate these stories
and open historical and critical lines of inquiry.”
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A special line of code
This collaboratively written book takes a single line of code—the extremely concise BASIC program for the Commodore 64 inscribed in the book's title—and uses it as a lens through which to consider the phenomenon of creative computing and the way computer programs exist in culture.
As a book title, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (MIT Press, 2012) does not exactly roll off the tongue. But as computer code, it has the quality of concrete poetry in the eyes of Nick Montfort, associate professor of digital media in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing program at MIT.
The lead author of the book we’ll just call 10 PRINT, Montfort identifies code as a culturally significant human language, as deserving of close critical analysis as other products of culture. “No one would be startled to ask why this word was used [in literature]. Why can’t we do that with a line of code?”
Written for the Commodore 64, one of the earliest personal computers (released in 1982), “10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10” is a line of code in BASIC, the first widely popular programming language designed for use by non-scientists. When executed, the code randomly—and repeatedly—generates either a / or a \, filling the screen with a pattern that resembles a maze.
“The emergent complexity from this deceptively simple work is part of its interest,” says Montfort, noting that while not all code can be considered poetic, 10 PRINT is special. “I believe it is a concrete poem, a found poem. It’s a cultural artifact.”
“The digital/humanities intersection is not just in new modes
of presenting scholarship, not just in ways computer techniques
can be used to study materials—it’s also in understanding the
ways computation and digital media transform the culture."
— Nick Montfort, Assistant Professor of Digital Writing
10 Authors on 10 Print | co-authored scholarship
10 PRINT the book emerged from an online workshop organized by the Critical Code Studies Group, a collaborative conference focused on applying critical theory and hermeneutics to the interpretation of computer source code. Invited to contribute code for discussion, Montfort submitted the one-line 10 PRINT code, which he remembered from his childhood.
His post sparked a lively discussion among a wide range of experts—in art, writing, digital media, computer science, and even library science. Montfort, who previously co-authored Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press, 2009), quickly recognized the potential for a book on the topic.
He therefore tapped key contributors to join him in in what he terms “massively co-authored scholarship.” In total, 10 PRINT has 10 authors: Montfort, Patsy Baudoin (MIT Libraries liaison to the MIT Media Lab), John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas (SM 2001, Media Arts & Sciences), Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter (SM 2006, PhD 2011, Media Arts & Sciences.
Even so, the book is not a collection of essays by 10 different people, but one coherent narration, told in one voice. “We had a wiki and wrote it together. Certain people would be lead writers for certain chapters, and there was an internal review process,” Montfort says. “It was a very complex process.”
Language that executes
Despite the title, 10 PRINT is not a technical book of interest solely to programmers. Instead, the code is used as a launch pad for examining a wide range of humanities questions, including the role the maze in Western culture and of randomness in computing and the arts.
The authors even plumbed the depths of the code by examining it in translation— trying it out in other programming languages (a process called porting). They discovered, for example, that in some languages the characters from different lines don’t touch each other, and so no maze is formed. “This allows us to see why this is a particularly pleasing program on the Commodore,” Montfort says.
Going to such lengths to examine one small piece of code is a valuable exercise, Montfort says, because “code is a language that executes. It can have various kinds of significance, from artistic to economic to political."
He points out that the content of code has already made headlines: for example, when the source code for Diebold voting machines was leaked and when hackers unveiled code from Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, Great Britain, fueling reports that anthropogenic climate change was a hoax.
“We’re arguing that code is culturally significant—and that larger scale models of scholarship can be brought to bear on [fundamental] questions,” Montfort says.
This work is central to the new wave of research called “digital humanities,” he adds. “The intersection of digital and humanities is not just in new modes of presenting scholarship, it’s not just in ways computer techniques can be used to study materials—it’s also in understanding the ways computation and digital media have been transforming the culture."
Associate Professor for Digital Writing
Comparative Media Studies/Writing
MIT SHASS | Comparative Media Studies/Writing
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available in print from MIT Press, and as a free pdf through Creative Commons.
Book royalties are donated to Playpower, a nonprofit that supports affordable,
effective, fun learning games on inexpensive computers in the developing world.
10 Print Authors
Nick Montfort is Associate Professor of Digital Media at MIT and the coauthor of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press, 2009).
Patsy Baudoin is the MIT Libraries liaison to the MIT Media Lab.
John Bell is Assistant Professor of Innovative Communication Design at the University of Maine.
Ian Bogost is Professor of Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC, and the coauthor of Newsgames: Journalism at Play (MIT Press, 2010) and other books.
Jeremy Douglass is a postdoctoral researcher in software studies at the University of California, San Diego, in affiliation with Calit2.
Mark C. Marino is Associate Professor (Teaching) and directs the Humanities and Critical Code Studies (HaCCS) Lab at the University of Southern California.
Michael Mateas is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Casey Reas is Professor of Design Media Arts at UCLA and coauthor of Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists (MIT Press, 2007).
Mark Sample is Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University.
Noah Vawter is a sound artist.
Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Emily Hiestand, Editorial and Design Director
Kathryn O'Neill, Senior Writer