Code as a cultural artifact

A new book argues that a computer program is more than a collection of machine commands and has important stories to tell

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The 10 PRINT code being run on a Commodore 64

ITworld/Phil Johnson

If every picture tells a story, what about every computer program?

In the case of a certain 30 year-old one line BASIC program, it sure does. In fact, it’s the subject of a new book, with the title being the entire program, "10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10". The program, written for the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 computers, will generate an endless scroll of the random display of one of two PETSCII characters (which look like forward and backslashes), which ends up looking like a maze on the screen, e.g.. 

Among other things, the book argues that computer code is “embedded with stories of a program’s making, its purpose, its assumptions” and that code itself, “should be valued as text with machine and human meanings, something produced and operating within culture. “ In short, that code is a type of cultural artifact worth studying and understanding as something that can tell us about the times in which it was written, the history that preceded it and the technology on which its based.

I recently attended a talk in Boston by three of the book’s ten - yes, 10 - authors, Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin and Noah Vawter. In between doing live coding on a Commodore 64 (just the sound of the keyboard brought me back to 1982), they talked about how, by examining the code and the output, we can learn something about the history and assumptions that led to it.

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