From A to . Code Year Thoughts about Markup

Brad Dilger and Jeff Rice’s collection From A to <A> came out two years (2010) before Code Year (2012), but I haven’t had a chance to read it until now.  I approached it wondering how it would look in this new context, a context only intensified by the many calls to code that emerged at Computers and Writing 2012.

The collection’s authors note a few times that mark-up is not code, and I think I saw a #cwcon Tweet that affirmed this distinction but suggested markup is a gateway drug to code.  The chapters, however, generally do not push that particular metaphor. Helen Burgess’s “: Invisible Code and the Mystique of Writing” does a wonderful job of explaining how the “view source” function on web pages has become almost irrelevant as most pages are generated by server side coding of databases, they are designed by invisible style sheets, and only basic html that would tell a reader very little about a page or site is left behind.  She seems hopeful that we will eventually learn to read the invisible code, primarily through “comments,” but my understanding from coders is that their goal is to write transparent code that does not need comments.  If commenting can be reviewed, particularly to the status of good technical communication / literature it once had, I (and others currently trying to acquire more code competency) might stand a chance.

None of the other essays I’ve read so far treat reading and writing mark-up or code in such a concrete, literal way.  Colleen Reilly’s chapter on the “alt” tag made a lucid and powerful argument that use of the “alt” tag to describe images has probably distracted designers from seriously thinking about universal access through design: meet the guidelines, good enough has been the prevailing approach, Reilly argues.  This argument seems relevant to the OLPC / Sugar projects I am working on: a lot of time and energy seems to go into activity development (coding) and Fedora release updates, but not a lot of time goes into curriculum development or educational access issues.  Even as I keep getting sucked into “code year” like activities and thinkings, I wonder if I am better off not burying myself in code.

Susan Arroyo’s meditation on <b> ends with a compelling vision relevant to the kinds of production classes I teach:

I hope to have highlighted the importance of writers as conceptual designers and transmedia producers who create across multiple media platforms for a variety of viewing capabilities.  The conceptual designer / transmedia writer is automatically collaborative and participatory and works at the center of . . .  sites of convergence.  Content can be developed, changed merged, and morphed, producing what Hawk et al. call “potential realities” (xii). These potential realities are the crux of participatory culture, where all participants believe their contributions matter. (31)

Code, and even markup, are not central to Arroyo’s vision, and I suspect there conceptual designers / transmedia writers have their plates full.  What do they gain from knowing code? Exhibiting code and mark-up competency? Million dollar question.  Brendan Riley’s critique of the split between content and design is a nicely complementary essay. He calls that split the last vestige of print-culture, “a holding action against the tide erasing the content / form hierarchy” (78).  “Digital writing is style” (77).

Jeff Rice’s “English <A>”  extends arguments he has been making about networked writing spaces.  Writing is always relational, always networked . He provides a clever historical contrast with Harvard’s asocial English A, and then fleshes out his vision of writing including folksonomies and tags via Delicious as information sharing, rss as cataloging and aggregating, Flickr as an organizational tool. If Burgess does the most with code, Rice does the most with mark-ups and tags as part of the electrate skill set 21st century networked writers need to develop.  Without tags and categories and even links, writing online is largely outside the network, largely asocial.  The network does not come to us.

So, from what I have seen (a handful of essays to go), From <A> to </A> doesn’t take up very fully the challenges of Code Year 2012, the DH call to code, or even the Rushkoff “program or be programmed.”  But it might come close to a definition of computer literacy offered by Alan Kay, a definition Chris Lindgren dug up and posted: “Computer literacy is a contact with the activity of computing deep enough to make the computational equivalent of reading and writing fluent and enjoyable.”  Jeff and Tom Rickerts (who has an interesting piece of “protocol”) have been arguing for acts of enjoyment; Arroyo’s vision is consistent with Kay’s, and I might see more of the same in Bob Whipple’s “Evil Tags” and other essays.

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