Inside Code: A Conversation with Dr. Lane DeNicola and Seph Rodney

posted by Daniel Rourke

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to take part in a panel discussion on London based, arts radio station, Resonance FM. It was for The Thread, a lively show that aims to use speech and discussion as a tool for research, opening up new and unexpected angles through the unravelling of conversation.

The Thread‘s host, London Consortium researcher Seph Rodney, and I were lucky enough to share the discussion with Dr. Lane DeNicola, a lecturer and researcher in Digital Anthropology from University College London. We talked about encoding and decoding, about the politics of ownership and the implications for information technologies. We talked about inscriptions in stone, and the links we saw between the open-source software movement and genome sequencing.

Here is an edited transcript of the show, but I encourage you to visit The Thread‘s website, where you will shortly find a full audio recording of the conversation. The website also contains information about upcoming shows, as well as a rich archive of past conversations.

Inside Code: Encoding and decoding appear in contemporary context as a fundamental feature of technology, in our use of language and in our social interactions, from html to language coding and literary symbolism. How, and through what means, do people encode and decode?

Creative Commons License This transcript is shared under a Creative Commons License

The Rosetta StoneSeph Rodney: I wanted to start off the conversation by asking both my guests how it is that we get the kind of literacy that we have to decode writing. It seems to me that it’s everywhere, that we take it for granted. It seems that there’s a kind of decoding that happens in reading, isn’t there?

Lane DeNicola: Yes. I would say that one of the more interesting aspects of that are the material consequences. Whereas literacy before was largely a matter of human knowledge, understanding of a language, all the actual practices involved was a surface to mark on and an instrument to do the marking, whereas today, a great deal of the cultural content that is in circulation commonly involves technologies that are considerably more complex than a simple writing instrument. Things that individuals don’t really comprehend in the same way.

Seph: What are the technologies that are more complex? What’s coming to my mind is computer code.

Lane: Exactly. Apple’s Garage Band might be one example, these tools that many of us encounter as final products on YouTube. One of the things on the new program at UCL we have tried to give a broad exposure to is exactly how much communicating people are doing through these new forms, and how they take the place in some instances of more traditional modes of communication.

Seph: You’re calling it communication, and one of the things that occurred to me after talking to Daniel, and exchanging a few emails, was that he calls writing, at least, a system of exchange. I was thinking, wouldn’t that in other contexts be called communication, and maybe ten years ago we would have called it transmission? But why is it exchange for you?

Daniel Rourke: I just have a problem with the notion of communication because of this idea of passing on something which is mutual. I think to use the word exchange for me takes it down a notch almost, that I am passing something on, but I am not necessarily passing on what I intend to pass on. To take it back to the idea of a writing system, the history of writing wasn’t necessarily marks on a page. The technologies that emerged from say Babylonia of a little cone of clay that had markings on the outside, they said just as much about the body and about symbolic notions as they did about what it was the marks were meaning to say. So that’s why I use exchange I think. It opens up the meaning a bit.

Seph: Yeah. It doesn’t presume that there is a person transmitting and a person that’s receiving, necessarily? And it also says something about, what I thought was really fascinating, that there is so much more in the object than just the markings on a page. About how the materials tell us something about that particular age, that particular moment in history.

Lane: Yeah. Even in a contemporary context it may have been the case that the early days of the web were all about hypertext, but the great deal of what you call ‘exchange’ that is happening today, how are you going to qualify a group of people playing World of Warcraft simultaneously in this shared virtual space – calling that communication is a little bit limiting. In fact it is experienced much more as a joint space, or an exchange of things, more than simple information. It can be thought of as an exchange of experience, or of virtual artefacts for example.

Seph: That can happen certainly in simulated game play, but it also happens in the decoding of texts. Objects that come to us from antiquity. There is all this material to be decoded that’s wrapped up in the artefacts. It is also, how much we decode and what we decode has something to do with our moment in time.

Daniel: I think it might be worth picking an example out of the air, when we are talking about this.

Seph: OK

Daniel: I’ve become fascinated by the archive of Henry Folger, he was a collector who became obsessed with collecting everything about Shakespeare he could get his hands on. This was in the 1920s and 30s I think. At the time there was a lot of need for every library around the world to have the object, whereas today we can digitise it and distribute it, back then if you didn’t have access to the thing itself, then you didn’t have the thing at all. Henry Folger became known for collecting the same Folio, tens and tens of times. In fact he became a laughing stock because he had tens and tens of the same ‘Last Folio’ of Shakespeare. People of course asked him, why did he need to have these things? Surely it was better to distribute them, but actually after his death, having all of these Folios in the same place, when people came to study them they found that they gained more information by comparing the Folios that were apparently the same. Comparing the marks that differed across Folios; one printing press had made an error here; how this piece of paper had been re-used, and therefore turned over, to print on the other side. And by decoding across the many Folios that Folger had collected they managed to piece together information about Shakespeare’s works that you could never have gained if all the Folios had been in 40 research libraries around the world. They had to be together, they had to be next to each other.

Seph: And the fact that there were differences, even though ostensibly there was just repetition, there were differences amongst the repetitions? It brings to mind immediately the Rosetta Stone, an ancient traffic sign that says the same thing in one language and the same thing in another language. A repetition, but clearly a key difference.

Daniel: The thing about the Rosetta Stone is that there was already knowledge of one system, and then they could transfer it, but I suppose it becomes interesting, especially in things like digital anthropology, where similar comparisons need to be made. You sent around this link about an old satellite system that they had managed to get more information from, by comparing and contrasting data, than it was originally intended for?

Nimbus II satellite data: Techno-Archaeology? Lane: Exactly. There’s almost a sub-genre of information technology today that I think you could call information archaeology. We’ve had several decades with computers and rapid changes in the kind of technology involved, and as a result we are losing the ability to access nearly as much data as we are collecting in some fields. The idea of people being able to retain older media, in the case you mentioned, there was only one two-inch tape drive left in the world that was capable of reading the media involved. So the project had garnered some kind of innovation research funding and they had done a proof of concept just to show that yes, we can use this one device successfully to retrieve the data from, what I believe was a 1960’s Nimbus Satellite. It has strange consequences in fields outside of paleography.

Seph: This obsolescence of objects is strange because it seems like, if the object is the height of technology at the moment, when it becomes obsolete the chances of us being able to decode what was encoded using that technology seemingly nosedive. But paper, stone, these most simple materials – it seems like those things we can continue to decode for ages.

Lane: There are questions here that are quite political in nature, but there are also questions that historians have about how something is going to work, when this proportion of our exchange, our communication and mutual experience, is happening in these forms that require opaque technologies in order to decode them.

Seph: When you say opaque, you mean?

Lane: Something that the average person couldn’t cobble together a simple instance of. Most digital technology, for example. Although there are counter-trends, like the open source software movement.

Seph: Where you create a platform, essentially, that allows anyone who uses it to add to it.

Lane: Exactly. They’ve kind of formalised it at this point. In the early days of open source it was very much about sustaining open exchange of things like source code. They realised fairly quickly that they needed something a little bit stronger, and that was where organisations like Creative Commons came into play. This is an organisation that provides a specific set of licences that legally preserve the right of users of a piece of code to re-mix it, re-modify and re-distribute it, as they wish. Some people refer to it semi-jokingly as a ‘copy-left’, whether it’s a piece of source code, or a piece or data like music and so on, essentially making it available for public re-mixing, whilst ensuring that attribution of the original author is ensured. It’s all built on this paradigm that exchange needs to happen and needs to be retained as a right for everyone.

Seph: Right. In essence exchange needs to be broadened out, so that the technology can actually stay viable.

Lane: Yes. Exactly.

Seph: I guess to suggest that for technologies to continue, to not become so obsolete that there is only one piece of equipment in the world that can decode, they need to have a lot of participants.

Daniel: And with open-source, the hierarchy also gets taken out to a degree. You don’t have the guy on the pulpit who can read the Bible and the people down in the church who are listening. With open-source it’s the people down in the church, basically, who control the code. As much as it lives, it evolves and is successfully passed on, rather than being decided by some authority. I don’t mean to build a figure-head here, but a lot of code is owned by corporations…

Lane: We won’t name any names.

Daniel: No.

Seph: Would we get in trouble for that? Of course this is the thing that has gotten Microsoft in a bit of trouble, right, with the EU? They made moves, allegedly, with their software that locks out certain people and locks in certain add-ons and software that must be used with Windows. It seems to be an effort at control, right? I’m not sure how this connects to literacy, but if you are controlling or trying to control how much your information disseminates you are making the opposite move from what we have been talking about.

Daniel: I think there is a comparison to be made. I’m thinking in terms of the difference between the French language and the English language. Every year the French authorities come together to decide what new words will be accepted into the French language, whereas English has always been allowed to bloom and blossom. Of course there’s benefits to both of those, like Microsoft controlling its source code means that when people buy a PC it’s going to work, because all the software or hardware has been designed by the same company. Anyone who has had to go into a lecture theatre and wait 20 minutes whilst the person at the front figures out how things plug in and why it’s not working. That’s one of the problems with open-source. So there’s benefits to both: to open-source because we can all partake in the code, but we have to forego some kind of standardisation.

Seph: It’s interesting that in writing, and I don’t know if this is true further afield from writing like computer code, that there’s this impetus to limit who has a certain kind of literacy or who has the power to decode and encode. It seems for writing that there doesn’t seem to be those kinds of limitations?

Lane: We haven’t brought up the term encryption; there are certainly situations where an individual wants to preserve a text, but only maintain a limited kind of access.

Seph: One of the complaints people make about ‘high-theory’, especially in literary studies, is that the language is so coded that the average person, if there is such a thing, has a hard time making heads or tails of it. There a gate is being set up where you say, well you have to know this much to come through.

Daniel: I think maybe looking at the system involved is important. With theory, do you want to argue that it’s a closed system? That universities foreground their own existence by perpetrating this coded language that we all exchange with each other, where we get funding opportunities and hold conferences.

Seph: I’m not sure I would go as far as to say it’s closed, it’s restricted.

Daniel: But it does open out at certain points. I do think it’s important for people in academia to see their work in its practical means, but whether that has anything to do with the authority of the page or the authority of speech, I am not sure.

Lane: This is making me recall some of the anthropological work that I have read on magical writing. Michael Taussig, for example, authored a book on the magic of the state. There is a whole genre on writing, writing practice and its association, in a number of cultures for millennia, with magic and magical power. It’s commonly acknowledged enough that it’s almost a joke that there’s a similar paradigm in the minds of a lot of programmers. That is, they have an esoteric, a kind of arcane knowledge, and that the literacy involved is sometimes associated with a specific language, but just as often with abstract programming principles. The exclusivity of that kind of writing is something that can bind them as a community. I have seen that many times first hand, but then there have been revealing things written on that too, mirroring tiny Melanesian communities that practice this kind of magical writing.

Seph: What does magical writing look like?

Lane: The term refers to a number of different phenomenon. There’s a colleague of mine in the states that wrote about a very small community that kept track of its dead by writing their names in a book. There were repercussions to not having a particular ancestor’s name written in the book, it had consequences that were woven into the culture. There was a specific person who was allotted the responsibility of writing the names in the book. You don’t even need to look that far afield. European traditions exist, for example, where spell casting abilities get traced in one form or another to the inscription of sigils.

Seph: Sigils?

Lane: Iconographic runes for example, proto-lettering. But it’s the whole process of representation that people see as a magical human capacity. This idea of transforming thought into a material form.

Seph: And that dovetails with your research Daniel?

Daniel: I’d like to think so. I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin and his short essay on Mimesis. He tries to go back and pick apart what reading was. That before we were reading letters we were reading the world, in a sense. When you sacrificed an animal you would ‘read’ the entrails and you could say whether it was going to be a good season. That’s the kind of magic capacity, to see patterns in the world, that at that point we would have thought had been coded by God or nature for us to find and pick apart. It’s only a small leap from that to saying, nature has given us the entrails to read, well what if I make this mark and I say this mark represents the rain or something. Then you’ve got the step towards the rune or the hieroglyph.

Seph: It’s a huge step that we make when we do that, when we take a mark and say this represents the animal, what do you think that allows us to do?

Daniel: What it forces us to do is to separate the world from ourselves, or ourselves from the world, to some extent. Perhaps when reading the entrails we don’t distinguish as much as we do when we read a mark on a page what meaning is and what world is, seeing them inherent in the same moment. To write something on a page and say it represents love or my name, suddenly our symbolic notions are pushed one step further, we are distinguishing ourselves from nature, from the world around us, from the language that we speak.

Seph: It sounds like the bad part of that is that we become more abstracted, that we begin the process of abstracting ourselves from ourselves. Saying, I can be represented by this stick figure, or this name in a ledger somewhere, or even represented by a statistic. But there’s got to be a good part as well.

Lane: In the field that I come from they often refer to writing as the original technology, and discuss Western civilisation as predicated in large part on writing and the written word. There’s a whole, in part false, but compelling dichotomy between cultures that privilege writing in some form and cultures that are primarily verbal, where stories are passed down verbally from one generation to the next. There are these clear advantages, depending on your stance. The ability to have texts preserved in a way that limits the latitude of the re-interpretations over time has very important consequences. Like you say, that disconnection that is happening, so that a given sequence of thoughts of articulations are taken away from their author, and persist in time and are looked at and forced into being interpreted in a new kind of way. That is the trade-off.

Seph: So encoding things and reading that code allows us to gain distance from things. It allows us to move away from them symbolically, and move away from them in time, and still in some ways preserve them. Daniel, in one of our emails to each other you had raised this question as to whether at any level of reality coding/decoding stopped working as a paradigm. Do you think there is a point where decoding/encoding doesn’t work anymore?

Craig Venter Daniel: To ask that question I have to contemporise myself, I have to locate myself in the present day. We’ve been talking about this separation, where the symbol starts to determine how we look at the world, the main paradigm of today perhaps would be the computer, or science, both of which have become very much combined in the science of genetics. In the news recently was the story of the entrepreneurial scientist Craig Venter, who announced to the world that they had created synthetic life from code on a computer. We could have spent the entire hour talking about the moral implications of this, and the political implications of him presenting this knowledge in the way he did, but underlying it is the very simple notion that life is able to be decoded. That to its very fundamental constituents we can pick it apart. Now, I’m not going state my opinion – whether I am a materialist, do I see something more ‘important’ in the world – I don’t know. But there are a lot of implications for free-will, especially people of religious inclination have been up in arms about this announcement. Embedded with it is the idea, from Craig Venter, that the world could be completely picked apart to its constituents, that we could rebuild things from the ground up.

Seph: The way we want to. Absolutely. Not talking about the moral implications, but it seems that one of the things we are risking in synthesising things, life, in this very commercialised, dead on the table sort of way, is we are risking despair.

Daniel: They tried to inject some kind of symbolic value back into this by encoding some words from James Joyce within the DNA of the organism.

Seph: Giving it a literary credibility?

Daniel: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s supposed to show that all scientists have got a literary heart deep within them.

Seph: A humanist side.

Daniel: A headline grabber.

Lane: I read an article on a geneticist in the states who procured some relatively cheap gene sequencing equipment off eBay.

Seph: Really? That’s an amazing sentence. Relatively inexpensive and off eBay!

Lane: Still in the thousands of US dollars, but comparatively pretty cheap. And, he had done this because he had previously been working for, I think, a large pharmaceutical company and he had access to the most advanced equipment, but as a result of him leaving the company he didn’t have access to it anymore and he was interested in a project of his own devising. He has a daughter who has a particular genetic malady and he wanted to sequence her genome with the idea that it could provide basic information for later therapy, potentially. So he, in effect, was initiated this do-it-yourself DNA community – if you could call it a community at this point. But in a sense, it’s like open-sourcing gene sequencing. It really muddles that whole question of, on the one hand, a trepidation built into the whole process of manipulating our own genes, but that’s a separate layer from the question of the commercialisation of the process. And the copyrighting of the ‘human text’, so the speak. I think primarily you’re talking about the pharmaceuticals industry as the leading industrial sector that has an interest in patenting specific sequences from a genome, for things like targeted drugs. An emerging and exploded new direction for the pharmaceuticals industry. Essentially, you’re talking about the copyrighting of a text.

Daniel: And the ability perhaps to put that online, to upload it to your website and let everybody see it.

Seph: To do what you will with it. The question that comes to my mind is well, then if you do create a kind of, let’s call it a ‘community’, like that, is it the kind of community – one of these I am more comfortable with – that’s like Wikipedia or is it a community like the comments page on YouTube. Do you know what I mean?

Lane: That you get the dregs along with it?

Seph: Yeah. Or an informed, scholarly position.

Daniel: I think in the long run it’s probably much more important that this information is shared around the right parties, but that’s where the question of morals comes up again. We are worried now about terrorists getting hold of radioactive material, and making a ‘dirty bomb’. It’s possible that if you can buy a genetic sequencing kit of eBay that in the next ten to twenty years people will be able to organise and design bacteria or viruses that could specifically attack certain ethnicities. These are some of the possibilities that the decoding of the genome allows us to do in the future.

Seph: Who gets access to the encoding scheme then, seems like a really important question?

Lane: Not just from the commercial angle. Usually the way the discussion of copyrighted texts begins is with the interest in motivating creative work. So the major content providers, whether it’s television production studios or what have you, their argument is if you don’t have incentives for people to produce creative work then you’re not going to have the same calibre of work being done. This is tantamount to an argument for some kind of mechanism being in place to preserve texts as property, in a kind of abstract way. That’s more at the commercial level, but there are other parallel concerns as well.

Seph: In other words, incentives like, the author gets some sort of payment or remuneration at some point for her work or efforts. Isn’t this the issue with Craig Venter. He was working with the major operation, a government funded project, that began looking to decode the genome, and then he broke off from it, saying that they were doing it too slow, that they he knew a faster way to do it. He got funding, and because he is obviously a very clever man, made it commercially viable.

Daniel: He didn’t quite beat them though. I think it was very close.

Seph: His model is, you need to make it commercially viable to get investors. For it to work you essentially need to make a profit. To go back to what we were talking about at the beginning, one of the things that earlier technologies in some ways avoid is precisely that paradigm of commercialism. Presumably when they made marks in rocks or on papyrus they weren’t doing it because that was their wage earning job?

Daniel: There is a huge hierarchy in text-technologies. I mean, every Egyptian Pharaoh had a scribe. The workers that built the pyramids wouldn’t have been able to read the hieroglyphs necessarily. So there have always been hierarchies within textual technologies. We think of text now as the freest system of communication that there is, but in pre-literate societies where education wasn’t available to everybody the text was just a mass of squiggles on a page that only the priest had access to. In that very move, the church could claim authority over the text, because only they could read it out. I don’t know if we should be mapping that directly onto Craig Venter and his commercial enterprise, but there has always been an attempt to gain control of information technologies from their outset. Always.

Seph: It seems that one of the things we have been saying is that that effort to gain control over technology, and to limit who gains access to literacy in that technology, is not necessarily a bad thing?

The Printing Press Lane: Right. I am kind of compelled to mention, as we are here, that copyright as it’s known began in London. Book publishing, and the right to reproduce a text, was granted by the crown and the whole idea that a text, in the abstract, could be property – rather than the copies of a text. The idea that that abstract entity could be property began here, when the major book publishers in London were beginning to suffer a drop in their profits because other printing presses were beginning to open up. The printing press was proliferating and as a result people were able to produce things much cheaper. They realised that this was going to cause them a problem, that the authors who they were compensating were not going to enjoy any of the money from their works. When copyright came around, I think around the early to mid 1800s, it was about preserving the creative incentives for the authors. There was a limit put on the amount of time the copyright could be enjoyed by the publishers. I believe it was originally 20 years, but that’s gone out of the window since then. Certainly in the States it has been extended, especially in the case of Walt Disney, to beyond 95 years.

Seph: Property – and by that we mean private property – is in itself not a thing, but a relation, a community. It is only private property because I recognise your right to have that pen next to you, to own it.

Lane: Right.

Daniel: I think the Walt Disney example is an important one. Not only do they extend the ownership of their icon Mickey Mouse every 20 years, or so, but isn’t it also the case that all the Disney films were borrowed off someone? Taking the stories of others and using them themselves. But as soon as any outsider wanted to use the image of Mickey Mouse in an art object, or in anyway, they slammed down on them as hard as they could. So there are different degrees of ownership, and community, depending on how important you see your own ownership as being.

Seph: It’s funny that in talking about encoding that we’ve gone from the text, to genetics, to moral implications, to commercialism and ownership. I suppose ownership is a good place to get to because of the political implications of encoding; of what it is to have the ability to encode something and then again decode it, to make it make sense, to share it; to allow it to proliferate. Maybe one of the great strengths about writing is that it is not under control. It really is everywhere, and in everything. Is that going too far?

Daniel: I wouldn’t want to claim that writing is any different from say a digital code. Not everybody can code in PERL for instance, but everybody can now get a YouTube video and convert it, using a program into another format, and add some titles on the bottom saying “this is my daughter, 1995” and then send that to someone else. I don’t understand the history of these marks on the page, why the letter ‘e’ is the shape it is, or what in Chinese, for example, is the history of this ideographic symbol. I don’t understand that, but I have the power to use it for my own means, to make it express. I think that is the same in all of these technologies, when they get to the public the public will use them at different levels of encoding, in a sense.

Seph: And that seems to somehow ensure that the technology will continue.

Daniel: Yes.

Lane: Yes.

Creative Commons License This transcript is shared under a Creative Commons License
posted by Daniel Rourke