How I Learned to Hack the Mainframe
Or at Least Check to See if Two Strings Both Have the Letter ‘A’ in Them
My #PathToProgramming™ actually almost started four years ago when I sat in for the first week of CSCI 150, but I chickened out during the add/drop period when I couldn’t get my Fibonacci number counter to work.
I ended up switching to ECON 101, which, I think it’s okay to say, was not the most enriching experience of my undergrad career.
After that I branched into a American studies for a while, and I thought that would be my major/path to the professorate, but learning in-depth history of the U.S. government made me really angry and stressed. But it also set the stage for my later research on Facebook’s role in the circulation of police brutality videos.
My questions guiding that research were — why does Facebook keep showing me police brutality videos in the name of consciousness-raising? How much shaky cam footage of people dying do I need to watch to be sufficiently “aware” of police brutality and violence against Black people in the U.S.? If raising awareness or seeing violence supposedly stops the violence from happening, then why does it recur so cyclically? (Also why videos? Why live videos?)
I’ll probably post about this more in the future, but my research mainly concerned the interaction between user-generated content and Facebook’s behind-the-scenes decisions in displaying that content. We know that Facebook shows you posts based on their popularity, newness, and “relevance” to the user — so the best posts are usually short, sensational, and attention-grabbing, not unlike an advertisement.
But because Facebook has picked up this omni-role of newscaster as well, content concerning national crises and images of war (read: police brutality videos) are pushed into this same format — of being displayed like advertisements. The traumatic consequences of basically forcing people to scroll through a feed full of police killings are largely unaddressed by the hidden algorithms/code editing habits of Facebook’s one-size fits all approach.
There’s a lot of theory out there about what all this means for the future, like how the internet and the accelerated production of “virtual” capital has exceeded people’s capacities to emotionally process all the information that’s created online — how this creates mass numbness/fear/anxiety.
But besides theory, I felt like I hit a bit of a wall in my research because I didn’t know how to code, or how websites and apps work on a literal technical level. It wasn’t an issue that I think would’ve held me back from graduate research, because I honestly don’t think a lot of digital media theorists know how to code either (not that they always need to), but towards the end of undergrad, it definitely felt like a missing piece of key knowledge.
I feel kind of lucky that parallel to all of this research, I also discovered how to make video art. After I started messing around in Adobe Premiere and After Effects, I got on this kick where I remixed a bunch of pop music videos.
This is one of the first videos I made in Fall 2014. For the past two years, I’ve also been using Max/MSP, a visual programming language, that’s enabled me to do a few performances mixing videos live. It was a nice, helpful preface to computer science fundamentals that I don’t think I realized at the time (re: loops, objects, variables, simple algorithms). It also felt cathartic to create “fun” content on a computer versus sad academic work. There’s something nice about mashing up popular/common images and having the result turn out like something almost unrecognizable.
After it seemed like both my academic and “art” life were pushing me toward computers, I finally caved and took the comp sci intro course at Oberlin in my last semester. I’m really glad I did, but the whole time I was also regretful that I didn’t just stick with it and power through that Fibonacci problem set back in 2013. With grad school on hold for now and another year of college tuition definitely not an option, I started seeking out both jobs and coding bootcamps at home in Atlanta. After learning about DigitalCrafts, the timing and program just seemed like the best route for me. And now we’ve officially finished Week Three!