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Race and Black Code: 2018 Critical Code Studies Workshop (Week 3)
By: Safiya Noble, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Mark Anthony Neal
There is growing attention on the cultural and socio-historical contexts within which computer code, software development, and the platforms and hardware through which they are expressed impact or interact with society. While a range of scholarly investigations of computer code are underway--from critical information science to digital humanities to the broader field of communication--and the last two weeks have offered opportunities to reflect on gender and programming, and the poetry and art of coding, this week will offer an opportunity to think about the ways code interacts with, constructs, and impacts race.
On the one hand, this week will be a conversation about race as a system and as a social construction that has history and that structures everything we know about our world. On the other hand, this week will go deeper. There has been conversation around separating race from gender in CCSWG18. This week is a reminder that when dealing with race and code, there is no race without gender, sexuality, and related identities or the structures that enforce/maintain them. As Johnson and MAN noted in "Wild Seed in the Machine,” Black Code Studies IS "queer, femme, fugitive, and radical." Which is to say, there is no discussing Blackness outside of or beyond a discussion of gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, power, and precarity.
Which is also to say--Black Code Studies will be feminist, queer affirming, trans* defending and invested in social justice or it will be bullshit.
What does that mean for our discussion of race and critical code studies? Race, in this context, is a matter of socially constructing hierarchical power systems that differentiate people according to ethnicity. In the United States, we often see this expressed in a racial binary that privileges Whiteness and is fueled by or predicated upon anti-Blackness, with many ethnicities negotiating their relationship to Whiteness and Blackness in a context of racialized power and economic relations. Slave codes were once used to subjugate and control movement, identities, expressions, and access to resources. Placing Black codes in historical context, opens us up to an interrogation of the notion of “codes” as a means of control that apply in multiple material contexts--from the use of public facilities, to unequal education and healthcare, to digital life on the internet. How black codes, in existence from the eighteenth-century and earlier, re-emerge in everything from slave trade databases to Google algorithms to the appearance of the color black on computer screens impacts what kind of programs, operating systems, and work is created. How can we hack these codes?
Black Code Studies argues, people of African descent, who have been subject to black codes for generations, have also learned to turn the operating system against itself in interesting ways. Invoking the "critical" in critical code studies, how can computer code be used as a means of oppositional practice/praxis? Can it? Black Code Studies also queries the ways blackness is rendered invisible and, as a result, where power relations are obscured and reminds us to always ask where and when blackness, antiblackness, racialized meanings, and systemic violences have being encoded even if those codes aren’t explicit or legible.
Finally, engaging race and code together means speaking back to power. What is the relationship between coding, systems and expressions of racialized power? How do we identify, name, and ameliorate projects that reinforce white supremacy or racialization and racism? Since much of the digital or computer code we experience is in large-scale, multinational internet-based platforms (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth), we should be critical of the output of these platforms and the way their programming instantiates or reifies racial codes. We should also look at ways code is being taken up to make power and violence visible, or where coding or the need to code forces us to ask difficult questions about consent, ethics, accountability, and justice.
This week, we seek to better understand how race is both reproduced and/or subverted within coding projects.
What are the elements of a Black code? What do Black codes execute? What are the meanings of this metaphor in the study of race in the United States?
How can we use theories of race when examining code (e.g., critical race theory, postcolonial studies, Black feminism, Intersectionality)?
How is racialized coding also gendered online?
What is the relationship between coding, systems and expressions of racialized power? How do we identify, name, and ameliorate projects that reinforce white supremacy or racialization and racism?
Code Examples for Discussion - Links are to Posts or Threads - Last update: 2018 January 29 | 12:09:17
Jessica Marie Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal. “Introduction: Wild Seed in the Machine.” The Black Scholar
Safiya Umoja Noble. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.
Melissa Dinsman interviews Jessica Marie Johnson, “The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Jessica Marie Johnson,” LARB, 2016. Link
Simone Browne, "“Get at a way of telling” On Black Net.Art Actions," Rhizome Link
Sydette Harry, “Everyone Watches, Nobody Sees: How Black Women Disrupt Surveillance Theory,” Model View Culture Link
I’Nasah Crockett, “‘Raving Amazons’: Antiblackness and Misogynoir in Social Media,” Model View Culture Link
Roopika Risam, “Navigating the Global Digital Humanities: Insights from Black Feminism,” in Debates In The Digital Humanities Link
Sarah Patterson. “Toward Meaning-Making in the Digital Age: Black Women, Black Data and Colored Conventions.” Link
Chloë Bass, “Sorry Not Sorry. | ARTS.BLACK Journal Link
Behold, some music for your musings. A playlist -
Black Code Studies, Side A is on Spotify
Black Code Studies, B-Side is incoming
A playlist! I'm excited. Listening now, and I'll post more later.
Black code studies does not mean Black race code studies but it refers "to the growing influence of national security agencies, and the expanding network of contractors and companies with whom they work" says the Canadian writer Ronald J. Deibert in his book: Black Code:Surveillance, Privacy and the Dark Side of the Internet published 2013 by Penguin. He did not point out that Black code to refer as Black African programming but it is a top secret intelligence programming system that monitors all the digital happenings in world. It is expedient that we must limit our discussion to thus "African Code Studies". @Safiya Noble, How do we reconcile Your Black Code and that of Deibert?
A Provocation from Mark Anthony Neal
Black Code Studies refuses the logic of sight, science, and linearity. Below, Mark Anthony Neal explores how this praxis manifested in music and in doing so also gives a sampling of how Black music/popular culture has responded to the elevation of science as critical knowledge (and framed indigenous and non-Western knowledges outside of legitimacy and even evolution). Brings to mind Sylvia Wynter and Moor Mother at the same time. Question: How is music also code? Where is Black popular culture, which has been central to knowledge production in the Black community, going to figure in discussions of code as knowledge production? Can we code music? Visual arts? And who remembers MIDI?!
Black Codes x Black Science
I’d like to begin by way of two musicians, born five years apart in 1956 and 1961, in Chicago and New Orleans, which to say, there was likely a shared literacy, a kinship in the archive. Both musicians, Steve Coleman and Wynton Marsalis, would wind up in New York City, a year apart in 1978 and 1979, respectively. The Juilliard trained Marsalis -- the reason he was in New York -- Marsalis the genius child, though Coleman would actually, later in his career, win a “Genius” Award from the MacArthur Foundation. Marsalis became the first musician to win a Pulitzer.
Whereas Marsalis mined his time in a tradition, one recognizable as elite, Coleman worked on the fringes of the New York and later Brooklyn avant-garde. Coleman worked with a collective of musicians known as M-Base, which included post-Bop and (dare we say) post-jazz iconic figures such as vocalist Cassandra Wilson, the late pianist Geri Allen and the remarkably and consistently prolific saxophonist Greg Osby. Marsalis’s collective -- his clan -- was a NOLA based family that included his brother Branford and father Ellis.
Seeming disparate visions of the tradition, it was in fact Marsalis, who dropped Black Codes (from the Underground) in 1985. Coleman imagined a Black Science in 1991. Both played to the unspeakable or unsayable. And while Marsalis might dare be recognizable -- accessible gives too much credit to those who simply consume Black music -- these two artists beg the question, that Phillip Brian Harper asked, of the unsayable and unspeakable in the tradition of black abstractionism:
It is too fine of a distinction to render this impasse of Marsalis and Coleman as the commercial vs. the artistic, though those are not even the terms; as if the commercial makes the abstractionism of Black Codes (not that Black Codes, but the other ones to more fluidly bring the visual arts into this calibration) any less unassailable or commodifiable. Instead, it is to think more broadly about Black Codes, and the Codes that are Black, and the Black that is Code(d), and Code Black (as opposed to Red) as the unspeakable and unsayable in plain sight. Unable to compute, sometimes the plantation had to flee.
Yes, this is one way of thinking of "Black Code." Black Code Studies, however, came together as a way of thinking about race and constructions of race, systems of oppression and violence. And as a critique. In fact, Black Code Studies would query why "Black" Code is the name of the dark side of the internet and consider ways Blackness continues to be a signifier for dark and dangerous, even as black lives are most threatened by the very processes outline by Deibert. Black Code Studies also centers histories of slavery and Digital African Studies. For the purposes of this discussion, this is how Black Code Studies is being used.
The special issue on Black Code Studies is available here.
I am a technologist that is informed by the "Black Radical Tradition" and Martin Luther King's "Beloved Community"
I grew up in poverty in the south.
I began meditating at the age five.
My parents and my Grandmother were active in the civil rights movement.
My Great Grandmother on my fathers side was a run away slave.
For me "Black Code" is about harnessing the power of tech to create new emancipatory political and economic space. Douglass (https://douglass.io) is my attempt to bring this into reality.
We should discuss a portion of douglass.io in a Code Critique thread this week! It is certainly an example of creative and critical coding that takes the terms of Blackness, the symbols and tropes of civil rights history in the US, explicitly into the realm of the computational.
Most of the time when I think about about computer code, I’m thinking about it as a directive. But isn’t a code often something that has to be deciphered? A kind of secret? When I think about code in that sense, it makes me wonder how Black code might be utilized toward fugitivity and/or marronage (as a potential amelioration to white supremacist projects). Admittedly, I don’t know enough about the technical side of coding to speak to how those concepts would/could manifest in coding. Would you say that the Douglass OS operates to these ends?
Indeed "... code often is something that has to be deciphered.." Systems have "codes" that must be deciphered with an analysis that has at its core an understanding of Cedric Robinson's notion of "Racial Capitalism; as well an understanding that the core ideology of silicon valley technology is ahistorical neo liberalism. This ahistorical neo liberalism is a direct reflection of an underlying structure that has as its basis settler colonialism/extractive capitalism.
Without this analysis and actionable projects, software developers and users further reinforce violent and oppressive systems.
For example when #blacklivesmatter or #blm are used on twitter they generate wealth for the owners/share holders/board members of twitter while further reinforcing the violence and oppression of ahistorical neo liberalism.
The Douglass OS project was developed with an understanding of fugitivity and morroange; as well as the concept of developing new political and economic spaces that can be viewed as a possibility for a new horizontal polis.
Thanks @ashleigh_wade and @fredhampton. I am fascinated by fugitivity and maroonage. When we taught Black Code Studies, we discussed Stefano Harney and Fred Moten's Undercommons and used its articulation of criminiality --
"THE ONLY POSSIBLE RELATIONSHIP TO THE UNIVERSITY TODAY. IS A CRIMINAL ONE. “To the university I'll steal, and there I'll steal,” to borrow from Pis- tol at the end of Henry V, as he would surely borrow from us. This is the only possible relationship to the American university today."
-- to think through how that may relate to hacking (things like Wikileaks are an obvious example, but so is/was "jailbreaking" a Mac devices) and, further, how criminality and crime have been coded as a Black thing. When we apply it to code, we can think about something really simple like adding comments (!<--) into code creates text/code/details about commands that we don't see at the level of the interface. And that this was built into most programming languages as a matter of course--so why not be criminal and steal the comment for our own use?
This is a good time to bring up Mendi Obadike's "Keeping Up Appearances" --
Link to the project is here.
And you can view the source code by clicking here.
And I'll post it at the end of this post if I have the word count.
So Keeping up Appearances is a hypertext project, very simple on the surface, but really captures another simple way of critiquing code by using it to show what isn't normally seen, which in and of itself is also a critique of antiblackness (which renders racial violence invisible and white supremacy as the default)
A summary of it from Rhizome:
And when we think of this project in the context of fugitivity, what lives in silence and those who are silenced, we can think of maroonage as a practice of active escape and refusal to be contained, but we can also think of structures that disappear and cause disappearances (indigenous, African, undocument, imprisoned, and more) AND that all of these are just one spectrum removed from interactions like this that Mendi Obadike describes--which when you look at the code, the entire interaction is suddenly revealed....
(Just a section of the code is below...go to the links above to see the full text.)
To extend this discussion, we wanted to share some critical and creative code from Fox Harrell, who has been developing The Chimeria Project, a narrative engine which he uses to build projects that reflect on the dynamics of social groups and group identity. From that project, we share a bit of code from Chimeria: Gatekeeper.
In Gatekeeper, the player lives in an imaginary world populated by two races: the Sylvanns and the Brushwoods. In this turn-based narrative conversation game, the player reaches a Brushwood gate and must decide whether to try to pass as a Brushwood or perform their Sylvann identity. This Turing Test game is a meditation on performativity, passing, and assimilation as well as the profiling and the many Shibboleths we encounter on the Internet. The piece asks questions about the ways identity, specifically racial identity is encoded, read, and performed.
Fox has long been working on computation, narration, and identity in digital environments. Here he describes the Chimeria project and its goals:
As we reflect on this topic of "Race and Black Codes," what opportunities to we see for projects like this to disrupt or question the use of racial codes for control through representations of those systems in creative code? How does encoding these racial transactions in code illuminate or obscure the complex process of identity formation, profiling, gatekeeping, passing, and assimilation?
Thank you @jmjafrx Mark Anthony Neal and Safiya Noble for this vital topic.
Looking at Mendi Obadike's powerful "Keeping Up Appearances", which @jmjafrx introduced, and at Fox Harrell's work, which @markcmarino introduced:
in terms of Harrell's book Phantasmal Media, I'm wondering if the many black writers whom Harrell credits for his work as a whole -- for instance Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man for its weaving of social critique in conjunction with writing and narrative structure and W.E.B. Du Bois' definition of "double consciousness" for his ( Harrell's) Chameleonia: Shadow Play -- if there are other places where black writers have informed black code.
The playlist is brilliant, the bibliography is helpful, and I love how this group is conceptualizing this project as addressed to many audiences outside this group.
Thank you for sharing Mendi Obadike's "Keeping Up Appearances." I love where you are directing our attention:
Some reflections: In the code, we can see all the text, and as you point out, the code is readily accessible through "view source," indicating that the artist could expect the code to be read, especially in a piece about uncovering hidden text. This is very much a piece encoded in black and white. There's the black text (color 000000), and those words that are "invisible" because they are white (color FFFFFF) on a white background, which carry the loaded racial subtext of the story:
And we access those words through the hover mechanism, we must linger with the pointer (incidentally, when I discover some hidden text, my coded black pointer arrow then changes to the white "gloved" hand on my Mac OSX with Chrome browser -- a white glove that some have speculated exists to avoid a racial marking of the hand). The reader must be active at the interface, tracing over the whiteness, marked only by the unusual gaps. And also it is interesting that this hidden text also serves another purpose, since the words are triggers for hyperlinks, not to other pages but to other anchored parts of the page. Interestingly, the anchors that mark those other spots on the page are also invisible. For example where the code says:
The anchor and name 'family' are only visible in the code. Therefore, the code links to a somewhere that we cannot see, which in a story about hidden subtext, suggests that this interconnectedness of ideas is also a code we are meant to reveal.
In such a piece, where we can reveal the code, I wonder what we make of code that is framed as outside of the piece. At the bottom of the page, comes more hidden text in code tied to the netstatbasic traffic tracking. In a piece about the unseen, the disappeared, what do we make of the unseen code that makes every visitor visible?
@markcmarino: (incidentally, when I discover some hidden text, my coded black pointer arrow then changes to the white "gloved" hand on my Mac OSX with Chrome browser -- a white glove that some have speculated exists to avoid a racial marking of the hand).
Wow -- did not catch this. Same with mine and it makes me think, of course, of white gloves as labor covering hands that are meant to serve (which if there are an critical race and A.I. folks in this conversation, I'd love to hear how we are thinking about computers, machines, code, hardware laboring in ways that we consider expendable and invisible and how that might relate to histories of labor, unseen labor, and labor of marginalized populations--not trying to give computers humanity but am trying to think about humans Other and dehumanize laborers) but also of the recent past (recent to me at least) of an internet where those with even the most basic html language skills could transform the mouse hovering over the page to anything from a bat to heart.
I'm still coming back, I guess, to how code has gotten more opaque and distant from the user/human even as the user/human gives more to the machine or asked by the platform/program to consent to give up more of their own identity in the name of making the program work.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to think about Mark's question about the code for the netstatbasic traffic tracking. Because surveillance is so much a part of how black people and people of color traffic in the digital--either as surveilled by platforms or culture being consumed by other users with the platforms as mediums or the very real surveillance and threat of attention from the state -- I....don't know! LOL! I find I have really mixed feelings about that piece of code and what it does. On the one hand, I can appreciate as an artist wanting to track who is engaging the work. On the other hand, surveillance--which is what a stat counter of any kind--is so complicated.
If I consider it from a Black Code Studies angle that takes seriously the way qtpoc have used the internet to engage and form communal ties, then I have to think about the ways stat counters were ubiquitous in all of our code at one point--not because we wanted to surveille but because we wanted to be SEEN and that little piece of code gave us a sense of belonging to the world, even if the post swam in a sea of lurkers.
So I guess I'd like to think about the ways codes with purposes like that, created with an eye towards defense and surveillance projects, then get appropriated by the people not only on the outside but on the outside of the outside, and even there and then can be used for self-actualization.....
I have so many thoughts on the video....I am coming back!!
I think this relation music <-> code is extremely productive. In a way, the relationship of particular (recorded, performed, composed) music to its abstract musical structures brings out in a very direct way how code, and science, and maybe modernity, is always double. That is, how we can simultaneously think "an interrogation of the notion of 'codes' as a means of control" and "how can computer code be used as a means of oppositional practice/praxis? Can it?"
Just with the right hand of the Piano on that first page of the Marsalis you posted, you can see this happening (the topmost staff where there is stuff happening, for those of you who are musically illiterate). The time signature is 5/4, which supposedly tells us the structure of the rhythm. Of course it doesn't—5/4 tends to be split into 3-2 or 2-3, but which it is is not recorded in the signature. In this case, however, it is neither. What Marsalis is laying out here is actually a simple and even bap bap (rest) bap bap (rest) etc. If you listen to the song on the playlist you can hear the snare playing that bap bap along with the piano right hand during the opening bit—the piano right hand gets a little lost in the mix. So, we have a system that encodes the rhythm, but also tells you how to play the rhythm, and then an encoding of what is actually a pretty simple rhythm into that system that ends up looking much more complex than it is. This system was designed for sixteenth century European music, and when applied to other types of music, even distant relatives, well, this is the result. Although there is also an argument to be made that some of this complexity of representation is inherent in any process of representing certain kinds of music. Even given a "straight" rhythm, there's a lot to be done to that rhythm on a substructural level, like advancing or receding certain beats for emphasis/deemphasis (and skilled players of instruments with no inherent control of volume, such as a harpsichord, electric or acoustic organ, or many synthesizers, depend entirely on this substructural rhythm for accent), or more famously, "swing" time.
Melody and harmony are harder to talk about, esp. with an audience which presumably contains a lot of non-musicians. But as an interesting example, we can maybe think about George Russell's The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a work of music theory that ambitiously seeks to describe the harmonic-melodic relationship in all music. What's interesting is that in application this theoretical structure becomes simply another system of improvisation that doesn't depend on fixed chord changes. Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" is the most famous example. So many things going on here. First, there is the relationship between system and improvisation, code and freedom, a mutual antagonism as well as a dependency. Second, there is the way that this very general theoretical work becomes particular through its participation in history. On the one hand, this is right; history is largely the mechanism whereby a series of attempted universalisms reveal themselves as particularities. On the other hand, it is an erasure of music as such into genre music, theory into mechanism, and musicians into black musicians.
Yes! Those little counter scripts are such great counterexamples to social media metrics. It feels like homepage builders and visitors enjoyed a peership on the early web, a kind of symmetrical expertise. Visitors knew that the counters could be unreliable--either through wonky code or direct manipulation--so no one took them too seriously.
In contrast, platform metrics have none of that playfulness. After years of aggregating our activity for the benefit of advertisers and investors, platforms are facing open antagonism from users. One symptom of this antagonism is that when a system breaks down, users jump to the most sinister explanations (c.f., the recent story about delayed likes on the 'Gram.)
And yet, depending on your preferred origin story, early Black Twitter came together by mutually exploiting the affordances of Trending Topics, a (literally) marginal feature of the nascent platform. Later, Trending Topics became a site of propaganda, hostility, and unwelcome surveillance. If Twitter were a more open system, how might those early Black Twitter participants--especially those who identify as Black on the platform--have re-imagined and re-designed Trending Topics to support the flourishing of their networks?
Michele White’s The Body and the Screen conducted a pretty thorough investigation of the white hand/pointer, so there’s that
Um..Black Twitter was a thing before Trending Topics. My 2012 article briefly discussed how Black Twitter used hashtags in 08, while trending topics weren’t introduced til 09. Sarah Florini also has work-in-progress investigating how Black Twitter’s use of hashtags for the 2008 BET Awards engendered public recognition of the BT phenomenon.
WRT Black Twitter and code, however, i think there’s definitely an understudied technological bit. Sasha Constanza-Chock put me on to TxtMob, which should definitely be understood as the tech inspiration/foundation for Twitter (more in my upcoming book if you’re interested). In short, TxtMob was designed for activists - protesting around the democratic and republican national conventions - to coordinate using text messaging. the TxtMob coders demo’d the program for Odeo/Twitter, and several of them JOINED the twitter team.
Thus, Twitter had a political and resistant valence built in...which explains why the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter found the service to be useful for their later political resistance and activity.
also...i’m Sorry for chiming in late. I had/have a lot of stuff to say about Black code and commercial apps/services like BlackPlanet and Blackbird, which were both designed with Black users in mind, but i didn’t want to hijack the convo. I’m hoping this discussion will continue to flower beyond this week!
Um...SAY THAT! Let's go!!
I'd love to see @taralconley @Sydette and Safiya also in that conversation!
This two registers of speech/thought unveiled by the hypertext and mouseover reminds me of the dance form of capoeira in Brazil, which (from what I recall reading) slaves in Brazil developed as a substitute for fighting to settle their own disputes (as they were prohibited from fighting). Thus, the aestheticized-seeming dance actually "encoded" a martiality in covert form. This was a way of reclaiming agency, in the same way, perhaps, as the visible-under-mouseover phrases also reclaim agency.
This 'doubling" enabled by the two (encoded and unencoded) versions also remind me of W.E.B. Du Bois's notion of "double consciousness".
"Hamilton, far left, sits with some of her staff in the Scama room at MIT, while supporting the Apollo 8 mission. Photo: Margaret Hamilton."
In this photo, there is a black engineer/coder at the MIT Instrumentation Lab! It would of interest to identify him.
The date of this photo is probably December 21, 1968 (50 years ago) during the Apollo 8 launch or flight. The programmers in this photo wrote the code for the in-flight computer for Apollo 8, the first manned craft to orbit the moon!
To extend our conversation about ethics and accountability as a fundamental premise of Black Code Studies (but also Digital Black/African Studies more broadly), I present for discussion the following Power & Control Wheel and Respect Wheel created by the Digital Alchemists (of which I am one, along with @Sydette as well I'nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Izetta Mobley, Danielle Cole, Bianca Laureano, and Moya Bailey.
These were created as a guide to think about how harm and respect can not just be a hope and a dream, but full implemented online.
Thoughts? How can we write this into the actual code, as well as the design.
Because surveillance is so much a part of how black people and people of color traffic in the digital--either as surveilled by platforms or culture being consumed by other users with the platforms as mediums or the very real surveillance and threat of attention from the state -- I....don't know! LOL! I find I have really mixed feelings about that piece of code and what it does. On the one hand, I can appreciate as an artist wanting to track who is engaging the work. On the other hand, surveillance--which is what a stat counter of any kind--is so complicated.
This is such an interesting tension, because recognition and being classified into controllable boxes are in some ways flip sides of each other--I'm thinking of Butler's "subject" and "subjectivate" here too. They can't necessarily be separated, but it makes me wonder: can we pry them as far apart as possible to try to get the recognition and subjectivation with as little surveillance and subjection as possible? And I feel like self-definition, networking among the marginalized (by whatever category), definitely has a lot of potential for that.
This caught my eye partially because this question, of what gets to "count" as music (and, more broadly, as creativity), is my next project. 16th century European music wrote a notation that worked for itself and then things that couldn't be encoded that way became not-music, not-coincidentally because they were done by people considered not-quite-people. But I like the way code/encoding functions in this example--it raises a broader question about what kinds of conceptual imitations are built into every code, and who they leave out.
Douglass and the BCL have been developed with ethics, accountably and emancipation as core realities. For me Douglass and BCL suggest not an inclusion into reinforcing oppressive systems; but a bridge to new horizons supported by the Black Radical Tradition.
Gitsoul https://gitsoul.com is the antithesis of github as it is the repository for code that at must be aligned with liberation movements for the oppressed.
@fredhampton your work here is creative, critical, as well as oppositional.
Could you talk a little about your road as a programmer and activist that led to Gitsoul? And also a little about your critique of github?
To extend our conversation about ethics and accountability as a fundamental premise of Black Code Studies (but also Digital Black/African Studies more broadly).
I am glad that you are extending this discussion thus for we have to look beyond sex, gender, colonialism and move into Africans' interaction in the digital world. A part from quest for liberation from neocolonialism, can't we look at the sociopolitical manifestation or display on the social media in regard to coding?
Over in the Apollo 11 thread, we have discussed a section that is in a later publication of that code:
This name does not just show up in this later code. BURN_BABY_BURN--MASTER_IGNITION_ROUTINE.agc is the name of the Master Ignition section of the Apollo 11 code even in the ibiblio restored copy of the original, and clearly Eyles thought it necessary to comment on -- so much so that his historical tie was written back into the code as a comment. Even though those names for files may have been added later, BURNBABY shows up in the AGC assembly as well in the Master Ignition code section and others. In that thread, we've speculated a bit about the origin of the phrase especially because this recollection comes 40 years after the fact and because we've found transcripts where another astronaut uses the phrase while in flight several times during a burning process. The inclusion of this phrase seems to tie the programming of lunar lander to a specific figure in popular culture -- and further to the incendiary racial and socioeconomic tensions of the times.
But if this story by programmer Don Eyles is correct and what we might call a Black code, a phrase from Black popular culture in a particular dramatic moment, has been written into the code of this lunar exploration equipment, how might we read such an act? Lunar exploration, in one view, diverted resources from more terrestrial programs that could have improved the lived conditions of those who were uprising in Watts. Or is this a Black encoder, DJ, inspiring and motivating scientific exploration? Is this an appropriation? Is this one culture infusing another? How can this intersection help us develop our discussion about the intersection of Black Code Studies and Critical Code Studies?
I wonder if @rburkey might also have some thoughts on the origin story.
I've been thinking a little about programming, code, agency, interpretation, and music, thanks to @jmjafrx's playlist and Mark Anthony Neal's inclusion of the Coleman-Marsalis comparison and Marsalis' sheet music.
What is the relationship between written music and programming? That may be too broad. How do jazz music scores and computer code dialogue, how to these expressive systems (to use Noah Wardrip-Fruin's phrase) speak to one another?
One kind of connection:
There is a least one programming language (other than MIDI), Velato, that ties music to programming directly, as you can program through notes and intervals, but there's a further connection suggested by Mark's inclusion of a score, particularly a jazz score.
I've been thinking about this connection in relation to our Westworld discussion.
The opening scenes and credits of Season 1 of Westworld feature the rolling scroll of the player piano, a vision of a proto-computer, following its code as it plays music from a variety of time periods (including Radio Head, Debussy, Soundgarden, Rolling Stones along with Ramin Djawadi's compositions) on the (ersatz?) old tinny instrument, a piano located in the bar on the groundfloor of a brothel full of robot sex workers. It provides a soundtrack to scenes that are playing out according to a score of dramatic action, albeit a responsive one. Agency is a major theme of the show and how much programming controls anything. The problematic agency of the sex workers is noisily joined to the problematic agency of the AI "hosts," struggling for self-determination and self-awareness.
The opening credits might suffice to offer a sample of the themes (codes: video, playback, performance, score):
I should note the songs the piano plays include Scott Joplin's Peacherine Rag, which like jazz, is another interesting Black artistic genre fit into the European score. Here I'm thinking of @melstanfill's comment about how music "that wouldn't be encoded that way became not-music, not-coincidentally because they were done by people considered not-quite-people." And for more reflection on this overlay of issues of race, socio-economic status, enslavement, code, and music, there's the fact that Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the white co-creator of the Westworld robot park, seems to prefer to have an early generation AI host sit and play his piano. Of course, then there was his partner...(no spoilers here).
This player piano score, scrolling as it does, gives us one point of contact between music and programming, which I suspect others have articulated (need to do a proper lit search). Scores in jazz music are an unusual artifact to me because I think of jazz as deeply embodied and most marked by improvisation. That of course is just one kind and one aspect of jazz.
I'm thinking about @ebuswell's point:
An anecdote: I once saw a piano player from the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl replicate one of Oscar Peterson's solos note for note. Later that night, the piano virtuoso Oscar lumbered out, this was late in his life, after his stroke (codes: bodies, health, race music, performance), and then he played his version of his classic songs. The note-for-note equivalent couldn't hold a candle to what Oscar produced, at least not as I experienced it.
To return to Westworld, the character of Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who "runs" the brothel (codes: race, gender, sexwork, agency, consciousness) struggles throughout the series with her agency and even gets to see her code -- perhaps even breaks free of it (again, trying to do this no-spoilers, but...sorry). However, the scripts and shots of Westword feature her frequently disrobed, the actress strips/is stripped for the viewers, for a (white) male gaze. And of course the script is yet another score/code to be performed, expressed -- maybe that's the word I want. I'm not trying to do a reading here, just laying out some of the openings for discussion.
In another thread, I introduced the idea of isomorphic one-to-one systems relationships and interpretation. The piano player from the LA Phil was aiming for isomorphism with Peterson's code, but Peterson was still involved in the poetry of interpretation. As @ebuswell has pointed out, there's a tension between the European scoring and the emphasis on the live interpretation of jazz music. But perhaps a symphony musician would trouble that binary even in playing classical music written by dead white men. And then I wonder still about the expressive potential of code...
Some thoughts, some disparate threads, some conversation points....
Yes, @fredhampton - more of this.
Thanks for this. Please share more about what you're thinking through!
This got me thinking that there's another story we can tell about the history of code and music, where various musical technologies, some of them involving something like code, facilitated the development of various musics, most of the time entirely without and apart from the intention of the inventor. I'm also unsure of the existing literature, but I suspect there's a whole gigantic slew of media studies literature on this.
One thing we can say about the player piano: unlike musical scores, the player piano does not encode velocity/expression information. Thus, along with the harpsichord and most synthesizers, a player piano can only emphasize and deemphasize notes through rhythm. This has everything to do with ragtime's popularization; Scott Joplin swept across the USA right along with the player piano.
Next, early recording techniques provide for very little dynamic range—the difference between the loudest note that doesn't get distorted and the quietest note that isn't swallowed up by noise. Again, this means that accent is far better represented by rhythmic shifts away from and towards an underlying beat. On a cultural level, that meant that music coming from the post-Palestrina European tradition—in which melody was singularized and rhythms and countermelodies were simplified in order to make the Word of God comprehensible in echoey stone cathedrals—fell out of favor, and was replaced by music incorporating other traditions with a lot more rhythmic content.
One more thing about recording medium. I think we want to be very careful in thinking about where exactly the "composition" occurs in a recording. Again, coming back to Davis' "Kind of Blue"—just because I happened to learn this story when writing the other post—the album is often rumored to be a series of single take improvisations. This is not entirely true. Davis apparently did not hand out scores, but he did hand out sketches of notes and changes. And then what? Apparently very few songs on the album were actually recorded in a single take, and there was some amount of compositing and other recording tricks on the final releases.
It seems to me that there's something going on here where musical notation is seen not as a record of a process, but as the source for another process—this reminds me of "source code" as Wendy Chun describes it. Tapes, LPs, CDs, etc, on the other hand, are seen as just a record. This distinction between improvisation and composition entwines with the separation of intellectual and manual labor—yeah, you made the music, but who told you how to make it?—very often a raced separation. Those who compose music and keep their hands clean can be recognized with a thoughtful, "compositional" genius. Those who perform music and whose hands are dirty can only be recognized with an extemporaneous, "improvisational" genius. But how do we tell the difference in the age of recorded music? We look for the source code.
These digital images are fetched from google search engine. They were uploaded by www.tori.ng and www. vanguardngr.com respectively. I am sure that these cartoons do have a source code(software) that aided the designers. This is an example of sociopolitical display in order to communicate to Nigerians and the government inopolitical innovations and coding in the African State. Racism is in the West. What of Africans at home?
Mark Katz's Capturing Sound talks about "phonograph effects," or the changes in how people made and consumed music based on the technologies available for recording music. Like substituting out instruments that didn't record well, the rise of vibrato to substitute the emotion no longer visible from the performer. A good read.
Wow, just in, also known as, when Twitter sends you riches --
This tweet from Jamil Smith about Justin Timberlake intending to perform to/with a hologram of Prince is right at the intersection of -- digital media, public sphere conversations, black folks use of Twitter as culture critique and add context to events, AND, most interesting for us, maybe, the way black humanity and code might intersect.
That Prince's wishes and beliefs seem to be missing from Timberlake's consideration, or getting lost in the excitement of seeing Timberlake and Prince (again) and the use of new technology, is an issue of ethics and how we protect black life after death. At the very least.
Tweet is here.
Of course "burning" is a very normal way of speaking about firing the rockets, and "baby" was common at the time, and neither individually is anything invented by the programmers.
But as far as the specific combination BURNBABY is concerned, I think the "normal" takeaway about BURNBABY et al. --- and admittedly, I've been writing about the AGC software for so long that I'm no longer sure if it's a position I've observed others taking or if it's instead a position I've been pushing myself --- is that it related to a number of the original programmers having exhibited pretty goofy senses of humor, which in some cases has persisted to this very day.
For example, my favorite comment in the code is "DO NOT USE ENEMA WITHOUT CONSULTING POOH PEOPLE". That's a rather crude example of humor, and to understand it, it helps to know that P00 (using two zeroes, but normally referred to in the code as POOH with two oh's) is top-level program in the code which is run upon startup, and that ENEMA is a subroutine that clears out the system (zeroing out variables, emptying lists and so forth).
Beyond that, there's also eclecticism and an an air of intellectualism about many of the software's comments, and even in some of the basic concepts in the code itself. For example, there are operatic references to Mozart. For another, the references to GUILDENSTERN (which others somewhere in these discussions have speculated are references to Stoppard's play, though I've always thought referred to Hamlet). Even the basic concepts of VERB and NOUN by which the astronauts interact with the computer may (or may not) be Shakespearean in nature ... but VERBs and NOUNs were intended originally to be funny, and just happened to survive into the final code because nobody was able to think of anything better to replace them with. Indeed, some of the programmers seem to have been competing amongst themselves to see how Shakespearean they could be.
In other words I always thought that BURNBABY was an effort to be funny rather than being social commentary. But again, that may be confirmation bias on my part.
If you like, I can ask Don Eyles and/or Peter Adler directly for more detail about what they were thinking as far as BURNBABY was concerned. Given that this discussion has a limited lifetime, though, I'm bound to offer the opinion that it's not too likely I'll get a response in a timely fashion. In the gender thread, I offered the possibility of inquiring of the original AGC programmers in general (i.e., not just Don and Peter) if they would care to offer up their observations on gender issues in the AGC programming effort, and it was pointed out to me that it might be better to wait for a future discussion, if any. It seems to me that the same possibility of getting the perspectives of the original AGC programmers on racial issues is potentially a valuable one, but with the same time limitations.
Being a newby here, I don't know if there are or have been discussions related to humor in programming, but it seems to me that the AGC software, and related software like the AGC assembler, could be centerpieces of such a discussion.
@rburkey I love your idea of discussing the humor in code. That has not been a major thread of inquiry, but it would be fun to pursue, and I'm sure we'd have more than enough people willing to explore that.
I hear what you are saying about the possibility of "burn, baby" having been just the kind of phrase someone might say during that era. I would be interested in pursuing this a bit further with Don Eyles.
But as @jeremydouglass has pointed out, we may never know for sure. So since a lot of our work is interpretive, I think it's worth us taking a moment to reflect on just what it means for someone who worked on a project like this to retrospectively tie the source of this "Burn, Baby, Burn" not just to the Magnificent Montague but also to the civil unrest in Watts at the time. How do we read that in the code? How does that contextualization affect the way this code means/makes meaning?
(And that's also to open the question up for an interpretive discussion to all, rather than a quest for definitive answers from the author.)
Hi all. As our week runs down, I'm going to jump back into a few conversations I missed. I really appreciated this one between @ashleigh_wade where Ashleigh discusses the secret element of coding (the need to decipher, which is interesting way to think about computer code, as not just a language, but one deliberately inscrutable in some ways and maybe not in others?) and @fredhampton where @fredhampton notes:
I want to complicate this just a touch by noting that both of those hashtags, even as they generate and represent wealth heading into the hands of @jack our favorite social media platform founder to lambast, they are also codes that activists and organizers created out of both love of black people (Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi creating #blacklivesmatter in grief over Trayvon Martin) and have continued because they index continued resistance on behalf of black lives. So this code is working in multiple ways that we should appreciate and should trouble our (01010) binaries.
Random - and a total brainstorm -- this also makes me think of very colonial ways that language operates--there's the imperial Spanish, for instance, and then there's the African-indigenous-European inflected Puerto Rican Spanish that might operate on the island or in the diaspora. So maybe there is #blacklivesmatter the hashtag as code that lines corporate pockets (imperial Spanish) but the same code can also have a very insurgent vernacular that, when turned against empire, can be used to dismantling ends.
I fell ill and am dealing with immigration so I am sorry to have not been present. Especially for such rich conversation.
One of my great desires is to push forth the examination of code as and tech study as performance.
As @jmjafrx points out so much of the experience of black and other people of color has been surveilled and increases with each marginalization. Concurrently the need to maintain those connections creates a need for finding creative ways to do so while building language and custom that at least semi cloaks the community and provides even a modicum of insulation . Especially when until time passes these platforms are the primary place to find community
It is that tension between what @fredhampton correctly identifies as everything we do makes the system richer and the very real need of care and comfort that @jmjafrx describes .
And when i move the historical date back of code itself its to hopefully jostle the discipline of code examination. As Week 2 brought us the discussion of poetry and music and code what if code or more directly encoding was brought as a lens into more of culture
I think this idea of moving the date back on code can help this conversation in many ways -- one is to detect the systems that are isomorphic and analogous not just in the form of encoding but also in the forms of processing that which has been encoded through algorithms and inscriptions of those algorithms. Such a "code studies" would be the most nimble and would have the most to offer processes beyond the obvious "source" codes from computers. Also, I suspect it would help us detect the interrelation and interoperation between inscribed codes in computer programs and the many systems that emerge out of them and operate alongside them.
In terms of this working group, we can see some of that work happening in @SamaraHayleySteele's thread about LARP as well as @difranco's thread about law.
I'd also be interested to see how we would trace out the analogs between other encoded systems of oppression and privilege -- along with acts designed to disrupt those systems. (And I say this with sympathy to your experience, suffering through biological and bureaucratic systems!)
@safiyanoble, if we could get at the code behind the Google search, how might that change our relationship to what you call "Algorithms of Oppression"? Can we image counterprogramming along the lines of @fredhampton's project?