Computers are Systems, not Languages

On substituting programming languages for natural languages in the humanities

Last year I learned about a rumor swirling around the comparative literature department at UCLA, where I did my PhD. Supposedly I had managed to get C++ to count as one of the three languages required for the degree. It’s not true, for the record, but it is a topic that comes up from time to time—substituting programming languages for… read more

“This Question of Language”

Derrida on September 11

In October, 2001, Giovanna Borradori conducted an interview with Jacques Derrida about the 9/11 attacks. The result was paired with a similar conversation with Jurgen Habermas, and published as Philosophy in a Time of Terror. You can read exerpts of both interviews online. I happened to read the interview only recently, right around the same time that the supposed “Derrida… read more

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The Problem With Ketchup Leather

It's not the taste.

I didn’t know that burgers were broken. This week I was startled to learn otherwise. “Ketchup leather,” declares a Tech Insider “Innovation” headline on the matter, “is the solution to soggy burgers we’ve been waiting for.” So many questions. Are soggy burgers really a problem? Do they require a solution? And is ketchup leather—which is just a square of spiced, dehydrated tomato paste… read more

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In the Habit

A Review of Michael W. Clune's Gamelife

I am on an airplane reading Michael W. Clune’s Gamelife, a memoir about growing up playing computer games in the 1980s. I’ve just finished eating the smoked salmon and kiwi on the “fruit plate” I was offered by the flight attendant but had initially declined. Just like I had declined to review Gamelife for this publication, initially. For reasons, too. Michael… read more

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Don’t Hate the Phone Call, Hate the Phone

Our telephone habits have changed, but so have the infrastructure and design of the handset.

One of the ironies of modern life is that everyone is glued to their phones, but nobody uses them as phones anymore. Not by choice, anyway. Phone calls—you know, where you put the thing up to your ear and speak to someone in real time—are becoming relics of a bygone era, the “phone” part of a smartphone turning vestigial as… read more

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Video Games Are Better Without Characters

The real legacy of SimCity is its attempt—and failure—to make complex systems the protagonists instead of people.

In the mid-1980s, the easiest way to check out the latest computer games was to go to a bookstore in the mall. Past the John Grisham and the bargain history books in the B. Dalton Bookseller, you’d find Software Etc., a small island of boxes amidst bound volumes, and a few computers on which to play the latest releases. It… read more

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The Cathedral of Computation

We’re not living in an algorithmic culture so much as a computational theocracy.

Algorithms are everywhere, supposedly. We are living in an “algorithmic culture,” to use the author and communication scholar Ted Striphas’s name for it. Google’s search algorithms determine how we access information. Facebook’s News Feed algorithms determine how we socialize. Netflix’s and Amazon’s collaborative filtering algorithms choose products and media for us. You hear it everywhere. “Google announced a change to… read more

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You Are Mountain

A strange video game from the Her animator bests Spike Jonze's film at depicting what a relationship with an alien really would be like.

Near the start of his relationship with a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning film Her, Samantha the OS (Scarlett Johansson) helps Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) play a videogame. Called “Alien Child” by the filmmakers, the game seems familiar enough to be plausible to viewers, yet foreign enough to induce estrangement. The same could be said of the film’s high-waisted… read more

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Yo

Communication online is mostly meta-communication, but the loudest meta-communication is profit.

Are you here? That’s all I want to know. Are you here, reading me? Clicking our links? Viewing our ads, or at least, allowing your browser to load them? Liking or faving or retweeting me? It’s what you want to know when you text your significant other or your child. Are you there? Is everything okay? Yes, yes, I’m here.… read more

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Shaka, When the Walls Fell

In one fascinating episode, Star Trek: The Next Generation traced the limits of human communication as we know it—and suggested a new, truer way of talking about the universe.

On stardate 45047.2, Jean-Luc Picard leads the crew of the Enterprise in pursuit of a transmission beacon from the El-Adrel system, where a Tamarian vessel has been broadcasting a mathematical signal for weeks. The aliens, also known as the Children of Tama, are an apparently peaceable and technologically advanced race with which the Federation nevertheless has failed to forge diplomatic relations.… read more