I am Not A Computer Programmer.
I am not a computer programmer. My knowledge of programming language extends as far as hypertext mark-up language (html), which I learned in the days of crude computing better known as Web 1.0. Yet, for the past couple of years, I have been using Ubuntu, the user-friendly Linux desktop environment founded by Mark Shuttleworth. (Ubuntu is a Bantu word which means “humanity unto others.”) Sick of my slow, barely functioning computer, I asked my neighbor--a robotics software engineer--what new computer I should buy. Yes, just so happens that the moment I conspired to murder my machine that a computer programmer happened upon my front door to help me move a heavy piece of furniture (It seems Open Source thrives on synchronicity). I never wanted to use Windows again, and I couldn’t afford the expensive membership fees of the iCult. He suggested that I stop using proprietary software altogether and consider switching to Linux. I heard the word Linux and I automatically felt crushed. I remembered my high school dork friends with their terminals and their occasional visits with the FBI, on account of their cracking credit cards. How was I to use Linux?
Since I could burn ISO files, I was thrilled I could test out Ubuntu on my sluggish machine. Not only was it super easy to use, but I was pissed that I didn’t know this option was available to me. I asked my neighbor, who would soon become one of my best friends, why everyone didn’t drop their costly, barely functioning Windows OS’s. After hundreds of thousands of hours, over many long days and long nights, I understood concepts like modularity and proprietary lock-in. I came into contact with sites like Slashdot, ReadWriteWeb, and Reddit. I wasn’t interested in “becoming” a member of this community, but I did want to know more about the people who wrote the code--their personal experiences, how they interacted. I wanted to visualize their values, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. I eagerly read Richard Stallman’s Manifesto, learned more about Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond, Alan Turing, Steven Wozniak, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Ward Cunningham. When my printer and scanner hard drives weren’t compatible with Ubuntu, I googled how to manually install them. Soon, I began to recognize the characteristics of the Free and Open Source Software Community and its massive impact on other communities. It had a complex history, social languages, intertextuality (GNU’s not Unix), discourses, conversations. All the ‘stuff’ of a discourse community. Software developments that facilitate(d) web 2.0, our dependence on ‘free’ applications, and Linux servers running major businesses and the Interwebz is striking evidence of its power.
Indeed, I am not a computer programmer, but I began to recognize several commonalities between my perspective as a writing teacher and my friend’s perspective as a programmer. The objectives of having access to code, tinkering with the code, running programs for any purpose, and sharing improvements with the community so everyone benefits were tantamount to my pedagogical approaches to rhetoric and composition. I renewed connections with those “dork” friends from high school and recognized what we had in common all along: a love of wit and play, an insatiable curiosity for learning about how things (and people) work, and a knack for solving problems.
I do not feel as if I need to be a programmer to faithfully represent and perform values held by practitioners of Computers and Writing. I have repeatedly stated that I am not a computer programmer, but I will assert now that I am a hacker. I am able to recognize how bureaucratic linguistic practices inhibit me from “tinkering” with language. I see how the humanities’ obsession with authors and owners inhibits many people from collaborating, dialoguing about, and innovating scholarly research. In fact, I’ve been on the border my whole life---switching back and forth from Standard White English and African American Vernacular English, Midwest Plain Style and Decorous Southern Speech. I’ve used the invisibility and visibility of my identity to push the limits of argumentation beyond the limits of ‘normality.’ I’ve been translating language as long as I can remember, trying to understand these rules, poking fun at them, playing with them, succeeding or failing at remixing and subverting them to open up new paths for language use. Computational literacy should include a wider range of competencies besides just ‘technical’ literacy. Coding is a dynamic performance, a demonstration of various levels of competency: how and why I do code or chose to learn about the significance and value of coding influences what programs I run--in both human and machine interactions. For example, working with multilingual writers in the writing center for the past year has enabled me to recognize the benefits of using computing as a metaphor for helping them understand grammar. I’ve learned to understand the operational limits and potentials of this code, and recognize the inseparable relationship between the technical, cultural, and political. This talk, for instance, is a program I’m running to facilitate trust between us so that we can acknowledge the value of anyone who wants to tinker with these discourses for the benefit of helping others quench their thirst for knowledge or find out which beverage motivates them to pursue their drink.
I am not a computer programmer, but should I desire to close the wide gap that exists between what I need to know and what I can possibly learn to become one, I have access to every resource available to me to do so vis-a-vis open educational resources. I don’t know C++, Ruby, Python, or Perl, but I was able to get a sense of the politics surrounding their developments and implementations by visiting their websites, reading discussion forums, current events, trade and scholarly journal articles, and talking to individuals teaching and learning these languages. I recognize how I benefit from the architecture of these collaborative feedback systems, which include countless distributed autonomous communities constituting intertwingularity, as Internet pioneer Ted Nelson aptly describes. I do not teach with technology without discussing the power distributions of socio-technical systems, the ethical responsibilities they inflict upon human users, and the ways in which our grammatical code and linguistic arrangements make it difficult for us to talk about emergence. We need hackers of all gradients--from the computer programmer to the radical pragmatist instructor to the DJ to the comic--to resolve the broader issues of helping students develop enough confidence and generosity to hack language, improve their writing, and self-consciously participate in a much broader effort to do humanity unto others.