What is embodied programming?

nodeI had a great time at the Node Forum in Frankfurt this weekend. I got to meet my software art hero Julian Oliver finally, who gave an excellent and provocative talk on the technological ideology of seamlessness from a critical engineering perspective. Kyle McDonald gave an excellent related talk on the boundaries between on-line and off-line life, and I particularly liked his work on “computer face“, which is a highly relevant topic for any critical view of live coding performance.

My own talk was about “Live coding the embodied loop”, a bit of a ramble but hopefully got across some insights into what live coding is becoming. I had a great question (I think by someone called Moritz) that I didn’t manage to answer coherently, so thought I’d do it now:

What do you mean by embodied programming?

Perhaps the concept of “embodied programming” relates to a slightly delicate point I made during my talk (and have tentatively explored here before), that programmers do not know what they are doing. Instead, programs emerge from a coupling between the programmer and their computer language. Therefore, programmer cognition is not something that only happens in the brain, but in a dynamical relationship between the embodied brain, the computer language and perception of the output of the running code.

I am very much speaking from my own experience here, as someone fluent in a range of programming languages, and who has architected large industrial systems used by many people. This is not to boast at all, but to take the very humble position that I build this software without really knowing how. I think we have to embrace this position to take a view based on embodied cognition; that is, a view whereby the process of programming is viewed as a dynamical system that includes both computer and programmer.

This view strongly relates to bricolage programming, where programmers follow their imagination rather than externally defined, immutable goals. And of course live coding, where programmers use software by modifying it while it runs. Rather than deciding what to do and then doing it, in this case the programmer makes a change, perceives the result, and then makes another change based on that. In other words, the programmer is not trying to manipulate a program to meet their own internal model, but instead engaging heuristics to modify an external system based on their experience of it at that moment.

Mark Fell wrote a really great piece recently which criticises the idealistic goal of creating technology which “converts .. imagined sound, as accurately as possible, into a tangible form.” Underlying this goal is the view of technology “as a tool subservient to creativity or an obstacle to it”, providing a “one-way journey from imagination to implementation”. The alternative view which Fell proposes is of dialogue with technology, of technology which can be developed through use, providing creative constraints or vocabularies which artists explore and push against. (I may be misrepresenting his viewpoint slightly here, which is quite subtle – please read the piece).

It may seem counter-intuitive to claim that the rich, yet limited interfaces which Fell advocates supports an embodied approach to technology.  You might otherwise argue that a more embodied interface should provide a “more direct” interface between thought and action. But actually, if we believe that cognition is embodied, we see human/technology interface as supporting a rich, two-way dynamic interaction between the artist and technology. To argue that technology should be invisible, or to get out of the way, is to ignore a large part of the whole embodied cognitive system.

To borrow Fell’s example, the question is, how can we make programming languages more like the Roland TB303? The TB303 synthesiser provides an exploratory interface where we can set up musical, dynamic interactions between our perception of sound and the tweaking of knobs. How can we make programming languages that better support this kind of creative interaction? For me, this is the core question that drives the development of live coding.

TL;DR – Embodied programming is a view of programming as embodied cognition, which operates across the dynamical interaction between programmer and computer/programming language.


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