Code as Craft

SPRING 2012: V.08 N.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012

Mike Salmond
Gulf Coast University, Florida.

Chair: Michael Salmond

Panel members: Ashley John Pigford, Jason Bernagozzi, Keon Pettiway, Rachel Beth Egenhoefer and Joel Swanson, and Victoria Bradbury.

INTRODUCTION


“Code as Craft” Panel Presentation, Mike Salmond speaking. (Used with permission.)

On Friday, February 24, at 5:30 pm on Level 2 of the Los Angeles Convention Center in California, a New Media Caucus panel was held to discuss methodologies for integrating coding as part of the art and design curriculum. The discussants were Ashley John Pigford from the University of Delaware, Rachel Beth Egenhoefer from the University of San Francisco (co-authoring a paper with Joel Swanson from the University of Colorado), Keon Pettiway from East Carolina University, Jason Bernagozzi from Alfred State College, State University of New York and Victoria Bradbury from Ball State University.

The blueprint and focus of the panel came from my own personal experience of writing a book, The Fundamentals of Interactive Design (AVA Publishing 2012), and my resulting examination of my own methodologies for teaching coding within an interactive media curriculum. Then the media push surrounding the book Program or Be Programmed, by Douglas Rushkoff in 2011, served as a synthesis for how we as educators and artists should be centralizing the teaching of code as a craft in the art and design curriculum.


Author Douglas Rushkoff, 2 April 2009, Photo by Paul May, Creative Commons Licence.Code as Craft as an ethic or ideology within the classroom environment. In the sense of esprit de corps we should adopt common methodologies to make coding an inclusive, fun and engaging core to every interactive/digital media curriculum. Code as craft is about creativity. It’s not about creating business applications or creating the next corporate app; it’s about engaging with coding as a form of expression and knowledge. The world outside of fine art and design has begun to embrace coding; 2012 has been defined as the ”Year of Code,” following a media push after the success of Rushkoff’s book. The campaign is an effort to persuade everyday and creative people to learn to code as a survival trait as we move into a fundamentally digital world. [2] Within the ideology of Code as Craft, educators need to approach learning to code as they would any other craft skill. Coding has life-long learning curves equal to that of painting, sculpting or dance; it’s not going to go away, so it needs to be embraced as widely as possible.


Student in classroom learning Actionscript for the first time, 2011, © M. Salmond.


Student in classroom learning HTML for the first time, 2011, © M. Salmond.

Code as Craft is empowering for activists, hackers, crackers and revolutionaries. Software art, although not really a movement, already has sub-cultures and energetic participants who create from command lines and patches, from cut-and-paste and grinding with words. The demoscene, algorithmic art and their ilk are cultures and movements that embrace the code. The letters and numbers are the art form. The expression is in the ascii.[3][4] We must examine and set up discourses surrounding coding as a form of craft in itself, separate from the externalized interface or visuals. Code has had little place in the fine art and graphic design lexicon until very recently (or in some cases, still not at all). This has to change as we move forward.

How do we approach coding as a craft? In my own studio and educational practice I have begun to reflect on how difficult it has been to persuade (or cajole) art and design students to learn code. The resistance is palpable and the barriers to creativity are very real. The best analogy I have is that of a car; many of us can drive but few of us can fix a car beyond changing oil or adding air to the tires. So it is with the digital world, the term ‘digital native’ much used in the media, has become commonplace and is a misnomer. [5] Just because a student can use a computer does not make him or her literate in its workings. I drive a car, but I’m not a mechanic or ”automotive native.” Code as Craft sets out to align digital natives with the digital realm, to embrace it and to learn fundamentally how it works.

Code as craft is set to empower the creative mind, to look behind the digital curtain of pre-packaged software and shrink-wrapped ideas and get a sense of what goes on beneath the interface. We ignore the coding aspects of our curriculums at our peril and risk diminishing the level at which our students can operate.Code as Craft is an aesthetic, an ideology and an ethic. If we ignore the code, we reduce the palette, we reduce the colors and brushstrokes available to students and ourselves. Rushkoff again opines: “Programming is the sweet spot, the high leverage point in a digital society. If we don’t learn to program, we risk being programmed ourselves. The irony here is that computers are frightfully easy to learn. Programming is immensely powerful, but it is really no big deal to learn.”[6] So why don’t more people learn to code?

The papers that follow showcase the successful integration of coding into a variety of classroom and collaborative projects. As more interactive or new media courses are offered at universities, tools are being developed to aid students in becoming comfortable with the craft. Recent examples are Codeacademy.com (created by Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski), which was started because Zach and Ryan wanted to start an online business but didn’t know enough to be able to code it. [7] They created a website that would help others in the same situation and created, “an online tool designed to give computer science newbies a crash course in the basics.” [8] As part of the push behind Codeacademy the idea of coding has begun to take hold outside of the classroom; New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg signed up for online coding classes in 2012.[9] This is a start but it’s not deep enough, as it doesn’t ingrain itself into the everyday as it should. Code as craft aims to bridge the gap between the ‘fine arts’ and media arts through collaborations, experimentation and exploration.

As an example of the success of coding as craft process, when I was program leader of the Interactive Design Program at Northumbria University in the UK, the senior show took on a very code-oriented framework. In the second and third year students are introduced to coding, as well as a raft of possibilities and outcomes. Students learn to code in a variety of environments, and as seniors, they were able to create truly unique artifacts. Jack Merrell created a digital seismograph from a hacked inkjet printer and the coding environment of Processing. The machine monitored topics trending on Twitter, and when something ‘big’ occurred (such as the death of Bin Laden), the pens would activate in much the same way as recording an earthquake. Working with Processing, a Twitter API and motors, Liam Viney created a kinetic structure that animated based on wave data information and was instigated by audiences who tweeted specific hash tags to the machines’ Twitter account. The slats of wood and motors mechanically adopted the wave patterns of a sea around the UK. It is code that elevated the profile and impact of these projects at the annual design exhibition, D&AD in London. These projects would not have been achieved without access to programming in some form. The students have no trouble coming up with ideas, but an ideas need to become operational, even in prototype form. Coding enables and fires the imagination because with it the possibilities are only restricted by imagination and the application of code and technology.


Student project, “Twitograph – A Digital Seismograph,” © Jack Merrell.

Student project, “Data Driven Sculpture,” © Liam Viney.

Digital and interactive media is ideally situated at the crossroads of the creative arts and design and to grow we must embrace the expressive and vocational aspects of our medium. John Maeda’s book Creative Code (2004) brought together many physical computing and code-based art works and experiments and served as an inspiration to many students and academics. One of the artists, John Simon, Jr., sums up what it is to code. “When I have finished typing, it is the writing itself that starts to create,” This is at the heart of the code as craft ethic. Words have power and code creates experiences, engagement, wonder and amazement.[10]  Coding is a myriad and diverse affair, but at its heart all programming languages have one thing in common: they offer the ability for the individual or group to create deeper, richer artifacts and express concepts and ideas in the digital realm that come as close to magic as natural physics will allow.

References

1. Rushkoff, Douglas talking at SXSW conference 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imV3pPIUy1k
2. Rushkoff, Douglas “Learn to code, get a job” 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/12/opinion/rushkoff-write-code/index.html. Reuters
3. http://www.demoscene.info/the-demoscene/
4. Rachel Greene, Internet Art (Thames & Hudson, London 2004), 52.
5. Marc Prensky,  Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001), 1.
6. Douglas Rushkoff, Program or be Programmed (OR Books NYC USA 2010), 185.
7. MSNBC.com, Thomson Reuters, “Entrepreneurs bring Internet coding skills to everyday users”, January 24, 2012. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46120461/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/t/entrepreneurs-bring-internet-coding-skills-everyday-users/#.T14IkfW6-0I ,(accessed January 26th 2012)
8. Jenna Wortham, New York Times http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/codecademy-offers-free-coding-classes-for-aspiring-entrepreneurs/ (accessed January 18, 2012)
9. Laura June, “Codecademy Offers Free Coding Classes for Aspiring Entrepreneurs” January 6, 2012.  http://www.theverge.com/2012/1/6/2688172/mayor-bloomberg-resolves-to-take-a-coding-class-in-2012 (accessed January 26th 2012)
10. John Jr Simon. “Authorship Creativity and Code”, in Creative Code ed John Maeda (Thames and Hudson NY,2004). 46

Resources

Codecademy.com Offers Free Coding Classes for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Google’s code academy (code.google.com/edu),
Lifehackers.com has a ‘beginners guide to coding’
Stanford University Computer Science 101 at cs101-class.org.