The Computer Program
Now a little more about some of the elements of the computer, starting with the program.
The program has 3 main functions: one is to interpret the sensory input devices (the
mouse, the keyboard, the microphone etc.) the second is to control the memory, what to
store, what not to store and what to retrieve and the third is to select and control a
response based on the interpretation of the sensory devices and the memories. I press
the letter k on the keyboard and it appears a short time later on the screen as a graphic
representation of the letter k.
Programs are mathematical representations...They have to be defined mathematically.
This brings interesting questions to the artistic process when an artist is forced to
transform an idea from a concept or an emotion or an intuition into a logical
A difficult thing to do without trivializing the original concept. What often
happens during this reductive and transformational process is that the subtlety in the work
is lost simply because of the fact that things have to be defined with mathematical
A different approach is to start with an idea from technology, and let the work
flow from the set of technological possibilities. This avoids the problem of finding a
mathematical equivalent by starting with one, but certainly a problem with this approach is
that it is difficult to take the work beyond self referentiality. Often these works are only
about the technology that they use and their processes and effects.
Yet another way of avoiding this issue of needing to be precise is to use third party programs
to make thistransformation. This process incorporates a whole new set of problems, the main one
being that it is usually the third party software that becomes the soul of the work. The
photoshop effect. Software that is written to create the same effect or response from the
viewers over and over again. It becomes not a tool but a palate of cliched symbols. For
third party software that is specifically written for a particular work the unique program will
have unique expression in the context of the work because Software is subjective in this
The way that a program is written has meaningful expression
unless the program is performing a trivial function. For example there will never be a
universal program that understands a sentence, because sentence comprehension
clearly has a subjective element to it. Any sentence comprehension program will take on
the biases of its programmer within its interpretations. (photoshop question when does a
tool become a cliche)
There is no good way of defining what a program is.
A mathematical description might
say that it is a series of algorithms that choose a new state based on the current state, the
past states, and the current set of inputs. It has direction. An anthropomorphic analogy
might say that a program controls its own time by responding to its senses. It has
motivation. Another aspect of a program is that it is completely invisible to the viewer. The
viewer can only infer meaning from the program. This trait of invisibility is where the
power of illusion lies, and invisibility associated with direction or motivation is the
combination of characteristics that cause us to project attributes of life onto or into a
It's difficult for a viewer not to project intelligence and will into a program that
has meaningful responses to their actions or even responses that are only perceived as
Where this viewer's projection actually ends up can often be inconsistent
and confusing within a particular work. Sometimes it might be onto a physical thing,
sometimes into an image of a physical thing and sometimes the projection might exist but
have no physical embodiment at all.
I did an experiment a while ago to try to show how the simplest of meaningless processes
could be combined to imply meaning. I created a second cursor on the computer screen
that was like a shadow to the regular cursor. I then added delay to this second cursor and
noise to its coordinate position on the screen. It then seemed as though this second
cursor was following my cursor around, implying that it was alive. The simplest
interpretation would suggest that delay implies thinking or intelligence and that adding
randomness to delay implies volition.
Of course there was no life, there was only the
shell of some meaningless characteristics of life.
This suggests that the characteristic of
following used to be, but is no longer a characteristic of something alive. It is now a
characteristic of the behavior of something alive, but it also the characteristic of the
behavior of a meaningless computer algorithm. We are still in the illusion stages of this
technology. I have wondered what the extrapolation of the willing suspension of disbelief
will mean in our relationship to computers.
Expressive meaning within the program is an important part of an interactive work.
to illustrate this, I go back to the anthropomorphic analogy that a computer is like the brain
and the computer program is like the mind. I do this not to suggest that a computer is
capable of life but that it has traits that I've already mentioned that if thought about can be
used for expression, namely that it has direction that is hidden that can have meaning
based on the present.
If you're having a conversation with someone, their words and
facial expressions and tone of voice and type of eye contact etc all add up to pointing to
the ideas and feelings that this person is attempting to communicate to you. Your window
to their conscious and subconscious ideas and memories and motivations is through their
words and behavior. These underlying aspects of what's going inside their head are
certainly an important part of what is being communicated.
Analogously if you're
interacting with a computer the control and display of the images and audio and the text,
etc by the computer program all point to the hidden aspects of the program itself and I
think this happens whether one wants it to or not simply because the program is
responding to the present. If the program is trivial, then an aspect of the communication
will seem trite.
Another related way to try and understand why there is meaning within a program is to
look at some older mediums. If you're watching a film or looking at a painting, the images
that you see reference the past in a static way. In an interactive work the images that you
see are dynamically referencing the past.
If the new element to film was time, then I think that the new element to interactivity is the
present. And it is the program that connects the present to the past.
There is one very simple thing that a computer program can do that our minds can not.
Flip a coin. This ability of a program to make a truly
arbitrary decision, an unmotivated decision is often used to model many naturally
occurring processes, but it is really an inaccurate model of anything. Typically the only
characteristic in common with the process being modelled is unpredictability. Irrational behavior for example is unpredictable, but it is anything but
If many irrational interactions occur within a communication and the actions
point to the same set of hidden motivating forces they will begin to reveal what these
motivations are. A number of random actions will point in many different directions
creating nothing but confusion. Unpredictability need not be confusing but can actually
be revealing if the right models are used in the programs.
Most programs are trivial with randomness thrown in to make them seem complex. What
this does is make the communication shallow and confusing.
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