Coding and Decoding

In 2009, Robin Sloan and Tim Carmody invited me to contribute an entry to a speculative course catalog. (The whole thing is here.)

This is what I came up with; I keep coming back to it.

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This course is about the deep end, and building the courage to plunge into unfamiliar places. Using lessons derived from the practices of cryptography, programming, and foreign language acquisition, we will learn to deduce information from context and recognize new patterns.

A language—of jargon, words, symbols, gestures, or images—is a collection of tokens. Shared language is a primary marker of community, a handy in-group/out-group indicator. The more languages we know, the more patterns we can recognize; the otherwise fleeting signals around us sink into meaning. Finding the pulse in what would otherwise be white noise, we come to understand and affect the surrounding world.

Coding and Decoding aims to confront two realities.

ONE: Languages are everywhere, and everywhere they are crucial. By expanding the scope of “foreign languages” to include unspoken languages (such as Perl, Ruby, and HTML) and hyperverbal tongues (such as the vocabularies of science, slang, and religion), that scope begins to include tools not just of communication, but of invention.

TWO: Most languages are most useful to know upon first encounter. But, precisely because it is the first encounter, it is the very time when we understand them least. This course aims to elevate the experience of first encounter. Through repeated and total immersion in unfamiliar endeavors—new countries, new communities, new machines—we will learn more quickly how to float.

Coding and Decoding is about all modes of communication, and all are in its view. But it is built with particular attention to the future, and what that future will be like. Technological experts can seem like magicians, conjuring effects wordlessly. By approaching that magic as a collection of component parts instead of an indivisible miracle, we can learn to see through these sleights of typing hands. In seeing through, we will learn to perform them ourselves; and think, as magicians, about the worlds we will build.

Language, now, is about more than communication. It is the architecture behind much of what we experience. Understanding that architecture will allow us to experience more.

Decoding requires immersion, patience, and attention. Coding comes more haltingly, but it comes most surely and usefully out of decoding. This class will require curiosity and endurance.