Visualising data & elegant code: Reflections on a talk by Warren Sack

Warren Sack from UC Santa Cruz gave a talk at Sussex on Friday, part of the Digital Humanities series of the Digital theme. His work is exhiting and tries to find new ways (or create these new ways) of bridging narrative and code. He’s done converstation mapping which is interesting to me primarily because I used Issue Crawler to approach (search and visualie) women’s groups online.

Perhaps most interesting to me was however his approach to words and to the mapping of these words. The aesthetics of how this text can be visualised is central in this approach – which I find a radical concern, especilally when this text is code. To be sure, my familiarity with code has evaporated after 2005 and was pretty thin anyway – I did learn BASIC as a child and FORTAN, PASCAL and UNIX as an undergrad (go figure why these were in the curriculum in the first place in a physics degree in 1993), HTML of course and Lingo & javascript later. In addition to me being a bit distanced from code nowadays, narratology is not that much my interest. So I’m not the best person to engage with the tension between narration and code that seems to be prominent in software studies (and the Computational Turn) at the moment.

However, this talk was also about the production of knowledge, what can be said in the new ways emerging from the crossing and interlinking of disciplines like digital humanities, and the politics of this production of knowledge. Apparently, it was also about the aesthetics of this production – I think that Warren Sacks envisions code that can be written elegantly, (and possibly read elegantly too, if there is such a notion) and, on top of this, produce or execute something elegant too. At the same time, both code and end result need to be widely accessible (not in the liberal sense of transparency, as he corrected me in our discussion though). I have a sense for this request of elegance as a queering of programming itself – an attempt to reclaim progamming from disciplines like engineering and physics and all the technocratic- boring -masculinist production of knowledge. I was a bit confused about the practicalities of such an attempt, and basically about the relationship between questions of “how” and questions of “what”, but after all it is the overlap of these questions that are at the heart of debates about the production of knowledge specifically in relation to new technologies, right?

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