EngLit 2850: Computational Media

It’s about process.

“Always remember that losing is fun! Be prepared to lose a few fortresses before you get all the way through this guide – it can be easy to accidentally kill the entire fortress while learning. But remember: losing means that next time, you’ll remember how you lost. In a big way, Dwarf Fortress uses the principle of learning from one’s mistakes.”

Dwarf Fortress Wiki

This class is about computational media. But: *all* media are now computational. Communicative and creative media artifacts are inevitably composed with, circulated through, and shaped by computation. Through computers and digital networks, computation is slipping into domains once dominated by text, with corresponding reverberations in our compositional and cultural practices.

So where do we begin? Where do we end? For now, let’s just say we’ll begin Thursday night, Sep 3. I’ve assigned some readings, so please check them out on Course Web. We’ll end in December (or maybe never).

While we’re here, we’ll look at computation through the lens of media production and consumption. We will ask: what does computation mean for reading and writing? What makes a media artifact computational, and what practices must we cultivate to interact with it? Helping us to explore these questions will be theoretical work listed below. We’ll also read and create computational texts, play video games, and explore computational sound and visual artifacts.

A word about creating computational artifacts for this class: YES. Even if you don’t know anything about programming now, you will by the end of the class. You *must* try to make the artifacts. You may not succeed, or your artifacts might be crap. That’s ok. (If this is difficult for you, take inspiration from Ira Glass: The Gap, visualized by David Shiyang Liu  or visualized by Daniel Sax.) This class — like grad school more generally — is about process. The artifacts themselves don’t matter! How freeing is that? We’ll see.

Things you’ll do for this class:

2 (total) substantive blog posts on the readings for the week
4 (total) responses to these substantive posts
periodic updates on how your tech learning and projects are going
make a Twitterbot
make a computationally generated textual object (e.g., a novel)
do some form of computational textual analysis
do some interactive thing with a website
play Dwarf Fortress
read regularly
participate in discussion
bring snacks
hefty final project: either a computational artifact & explanation or an analysis of a computational artifact


All readings, blogs and projects are due on the date they’re listed under. Readings are either available online, on CourseWeb or through PittCat as ebooks. This syllabus, like life itself, is subject to change.

Sept 3: What is computation?
Turing, “Computing Machinery & Intelligence” The New Media Reader, eds. Montfort & Wardrip-Fruin, pp 49-64
Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” The New Media Reader, eds. Montfort & Wardrip-Fruin, pp 71-82
Mahoney, The History of Computing(s). Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 2005; 30(20): 119-135.
in class: Christopher Strachey’s Love Letter Generator

Sept 10: Coding literacy
Ford, “What is Code?” Bloomberg Business Jun 11, 2015.
Mateas, Procedural Literacy: Educating the New Media Practitioner, on CourseWeb and Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press.
Vee, Understanding Computer Programming as a LiteracyLiteracy in Composition Studies, 2013.
optional: Tasneem Raja’s Is Coding the New Literacy? Mother Jones, 2014.
doc for in class activity
computation: Spend 2h on Python tutorials at Codecademy:
blog: everyone blogs on experience of learning code & relevance to English studies (a few sentences, by Weds night)

Sept 17: Procedural rhetoric
Bogost, Persuasive Games (also available as ebook through PittCat)
in class: Redistricting Game (USC Game Innovation Lab, 2007) // Racing Comrade (Ice Cream Breakfast, 2011)
computation: (before class) Spend 2h on Python tutorials at Codecademy:
blog~5 people write substantive blog posts by Tues night; everyone else responds by Weds night.

Sept 24: TwitterBot workshop (Meet in DSS in Hillman library)
Matt Burton from DSS (PhD, University of Michigan) as special guest
Lohr, GoTo, on the web, 174-180
in class: Matt Burton’s Twitterbot tutorial
computation: (before class) Finish Python tutorials at Codecademy:
Set up Twitter account (if you don’t already have one) and a separate bot account, and set up a Twitter app (see directions in Matt’s tutorial)
Create a Github account
blog: (after class: everyone blogs on their experience making a Twitterbot)

Oct 1: Rhetoric and computation
All articles for this week are available on CourseWeb
Brown, “The Machine that Therefore I Am,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 47.4, 2014.
Brown and Vee, “Introduction to the Special Issue on Rhetoric and Computation,” Computational Culture, forthcoming 2015
Losh, “Sensing Exigence: A Rhetoric for Smart Objects,” Computational Culture, forthcoming 2015
Maher, “Computing Phronesis,” Computational Culture, forthcoming 2015
blog~5 people write substantive blog posts by Tues night; everyone else responds by Weds night.

Oct 8: Expressive processing
Wardrip-Fruin, Expressive Processing (also available as ebook through PittCat)
Bogost on process intensity:
blog:~5 people write substantive blog posts by Tues night; everyone else responds by Weds night. (by now everyone should have written one substantive blog post)

Oct 15: Computational games
Boluk & LeMieux, “Dwarven Epitaphs: Procedural Histories in Dwarf Fortress,Comparative Textual Media, eds. Hayles & Pressman
Fuller, “Always One Bit More, Computing and the Experience of Ambiguity” Fun and software: exploring pleasure, paradox, and pain in computing, ed. Goriunova (CourseWeb, and also as ebook on PittCat)
computation: Play Dwarf Fortress for at least 4h. You also probably want to check out the Wiki for directions of how to download and play. You are welcome to download a pack that includes tiles/graphics; it’s up to you how you play.
Optionally, you can read more background about the game and its creators at the NYTimes and its installation at MOMA and parallels to SimCity at the New Yorker.
blogeveryone blogs about trying out Dwarf Fortress

Oct 22: Computational creativity: sound and weird languages
Edwards, “Algorithmic Composition: Computational Thinking in Music,” Communications of the ACM, 2011.
Mateas & Montfort, “A Box, Darkly: Obfuscation, Weird Languages and Code Aesthetics
various examples and tools for computational sound: Wolfram; IncompetechDonya Quick‘s KulittaGhost in the mp3
Also check out the demoscene.
For your reference, here are the links we visited in class today: Michael Edwards, Intro to Algorithmic Composition; Max/MSP tutorial on Dubstep Wobble Base; Ligeti’s Désordre; Xenakis’ Pithoprakta (based on science of gas molecules) and Eonta (based on Brownian motion); Hiller’s Illiac Suite for String Quartet; Cage and Hiller’s HPSCHD; Band in a Box overview.
computation: Play at least 4 more hours of Dwarf Fortress. Look around for newbie tiles and be sure to check out the wiki!
blog:~4 people write substantive blog posts by Tues night; everyone else responds by Weds night.

Oct 29: Computation and image Meet in Frick Fine Arts, First floor gallery (behind the atrium)
Aaron Henderson‘s work & gallery showing at Frick Fine Arts. Because it’s a light-sensitive project, try to visit it during the daytime (M-F 10am-4pm) if you can. (The article says it’s open until Oct 23, but it will stay open until Oct 29.)
Golan Levin‘s work
Still hoping to get a chapter from David Rieder’s upcoming book Suasive Iterations, but if there’s nothing linked here by Sunday at noon, then you can consider yourself reading-free this week.
computation: Play more Dwarf Fortress. Review Python basics. Read an overview on Processing and check out some of the examples.
blog:~4 people write substantive blog posts by Tues night; everyone else responds by Weds night.

Nov 5: Journal data workshop (Meet in DSS in Hillman library)
Matt Burton from DSS will run a data workshop using JStor’s Data for Research portal
Ramsay, Reading Machines (available as ebook through PittCat)
computationIn preparation for the workshop, please: 1) go to the JStor DFR portal, read a bit about it, and submit a query. You’ll need to set up a JStor account if you don’t already have one. Request your data in CSV format. The viability of your query for research at this point isn’t very important; it’s only important that you have something to work with for the workshop. 2) Check out the Agate library for Python and read through the tutorial and some of the cookbook examples. Get an idea of what you might be able to do with Agate, even if you can’t actually do it. Remember that libraries are sets of code that are useful for certain purposes. During the workshop, we’ll be working in a Jupyter notebook that Matt sets up, just like last time. And brush up on your Python if you think you need it.
blogeveryone blogs about your data query and questions about distant reading techniques by Weds night

Nov 12: Materialities and computation as a paradigm
Hayles, Chapters 1 & 2, My Mother was a Computer, pp 15-61.
Hayles and Pressman, “Introduction: Making, Critique, a Media Framework,” Comparative Textual Media.
(both texts are available on CourseWeb)
computation: take a week off!
blog: would be a good idea to blog on Hayles if you haven’t yet done two substantive blogs

Nov 19: Computational textual analysis
Matt Lavin, Director of the English Dept’s Digital Media Lab, visits (we meet in 512, our regular room)
Matt has asked us to read two relatively short pieces:
H.P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar.”
Ted Underwood and Jordan Sellers, “The Emergence of Literary Diction,” Journal of Digital Humanities.
Matt has also asked that we install nltk [natural language tool kit] by going to the terminal (mac) or cmd (windows) and typing “pip install nltk”. This is a library in Anaconda, which you installed last week. Also install “Atom“, “Sublime Text 2“, or some equivalent plaintext editor.
And as a heads up, Matt will also share a Github repo with files on the night of class. (You’ve already seen something like this in Matt Burton’s workshops.)
blog~Write a substantive blog post by Tues night or respond with a comment if you want to beef up your blog writing record. By now everyone should have written two substantive blog posts.

no class Nov 26

Dec 3: Algorithmic ethics & agency
Gillespie, “The Relevance of Algorithms,” Media technologies: essays on communication, materiality, and society, eds. Gillespie, et al. 2014
Datta, et al, “Automated Experiments on Ad Privacy Settings,” Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies 2015; 2015 (1):92–112. Additional info here.
Tufekci, “Algorithmic harms beyond Facebook and Google: Emergent challenges of computational agency” J. on Telecomm. & High Tech. L. 13 (2015): 203-445.
Diakopoulos, Nick. “Algorithmic Accountability Reporting: On the Investigation of Black Boxes,” Tow Center for Digital Journalism, The Knight Foundation, & Columbia School of Journalism, 2013.
Diakopoulos, Nick. “Algorithmic Accountability,” Digital Journalism 3.3, 2015, 398-415.
Jones, John. (2015) “Network* Writing,” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, 20(1).
computation: play with your browser and social media settings based on Datta, et al, see what you learn.
in class: speak informally for ~2min about your final project.

Dec 10: Wrap-up/review
Everyone reviews a week’s worth of readings and comes prepared to make connections across to other weeks.
We’ll collaboratively edit this document in class.

Dec 17: Presentations/Celebrations
Bring a presentable/interactive version of your final project to class, either on your computer or on paper, to be set up as a station in our classroom. You’ll all go around and offer a short intro to your work, then we’ll mill about and interact with everyone’s presentation. Also: let’s bring appetizers and desserts to enjoy together!

Turn in your final project via CourseWeb by noon, Dec 18.

Sadly, we never got to these things
Camper, Brent, “Reveling in Restrictions: Technical Mastery and Game Boy Advance Homebrew Software Development” 10Print.
Rieder, Suasive Iterations (forthcoming)
Examples: GBA Dev site;
Lopes & Aguiar, “Acoustic Modems for Ubiquitous Computing,” Pervasive Computing, 2003.
Chapter TBD from Oxford Handbook of Interactive Audio
Brunton, excerpt from SPAM
Striphas and Hallinan, “Recommended for you: The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture,” New Media & Society, 2014
Programmer creates 800,000 books algorithmically

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