Postmodernism and Computer Science

Early Notes on Postmodernism and Computer Science

by Paul Ford

part of this article

The hazard of being a generalist is you stay stupid longer.

mentions m.heim

mentions Perl, the first postmodern computer language, which I have no intention of reading

part of ftrain:theory, which I am making my way through, slowly

article maintained here for my sake:

Early Notes on Postmodernism and Computer Science

by Paul Ford,

Many computer types seem fascinated by Postmodernism. The first example of this I found online was computer scientist Andrew C. Bulhak’s Postmodern Essay Generator (link broken; new links don’t work), based on his "Dada Engine." This produced random text from sets of words. I found the Dada Engine about 4 years ago. (In a strange recursion, after I wrote a draft of this Ftrain, but before I posted it, Andrew linked to Ftrain via a "weblog" site. Connections between knowledge online are fractal in subtle ways, but more on that later.)

In the four years since, I’ve seen essays ranging from How To Deconstruct Almost Anything, "the story of one computer professional’s explorations in the world of postmodern literary criticism" to Larry Wall’s lengthy explanation of Perl as a Postmodern programming language. On the other side, the Theory crowd digs science, usually without a lick of understanding, writing about chaos theory and "quantum gravity as the roots of the other" in a seamless, cheerful stream of babble. There’s an amusing book out there called Fashionable Nonsense where scientists take on Pomo Critics. Me, I understand neither the science nor the Postmodernism very well, at least during this decade of my life. The hazard of being a generalist is you stay stupid longer. More on this later.

To hypothesize from a ridiculously tiny experimental base: do code wonks and Theory wonks have the same fascinations? Postmodernists are extremely curious about the deep structures of our culture, and they’ll go so far as to say that our culture is what defines our atoms, not the other way around. Computer scientists interested in non-traditional domains (say, algorithmic video and sound composition, as opposed to efficient search algorithms) and especially those interested in the Internet are also arguing against the atoms. They won’t always talk about it, but they’re into re-arranging the creative and cultural universe into manageable structures; they’re implementing the structures the PoMo critics are exploring, actually hard-coding "units of meaning" into their software, or to take it up a metalevel, they’re implementing tools which have built-in assumptions about the structures the PoMo critics are exploring, like with VRML, or CSound, or MSWord. I think it all emerges from data instinct, that weird ability humans have to simply absorb ideas after enough time online, rather than knowledge (more on data instinct later.)

In any case, that’s the real promise of Virtual Reality. VR is not just a jackoff fantasyland; it’s a tool for modeling all the wacked-out nonsense and relationships, for playing out the differences in our minds and our situations. More on this later.

It’ll all out when quantum computers show up, mark my words. More on this later.