I was asked to examine the sponsors of literacy in my life. Sponsors of literacy are those people and organizations who, in exchange for benefits concrete and intangible, sponsor our abilities to read, comprehend, and compose. The following thought experiment shows how part of my literacy sponsorship involves the “banned books” list and the structure and syntax used in computer programming languages.
I was daydreaming in a high school English class the first time I heard of the concept of “banned books” in American libraries. The phrase broke through the drone of the teacher’s rambling. Snapping out of my fog, I caught the tail end of the discussion. One of the books in question was Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.
I remembered the notion of “banned books” back in 1993 being far from what it has devolved into today. Elliott Kuecker of the University of Georgia sums it up best in an exploration of Banned Books Week titled Questioning the Dogma of Banned Books Week.
“Censorship and lacks of freedom are the norm, but partnering with corporations to promote specific books does no productive work other than creating identities.” (16)
Kuecker brings this up at the end of his composition, and the following quote by Kenneth Kidd at the beginning of his piece places his conclusion in better context.
“Scholar Kenneth Kidd has provided some explanation for this, arguing that BBW operates as a system for prizing books and canon-making—if a book shows up on a BBW list, it will most certainly become a bestseller and receive enormous amounts of media attention: ‘anticensorship efforts more generally tend toward uncritical canon-making, attributing value to books simply because they’ve been censored or (more typically) challenged’”. (2)
Eventually, I found a decent paperback copy of Naked Lunch at a used bookstore. The corners weren’t all rounded and dog-eared. Nobody had written over the text with notes, drawings or opinions. It wasn’t hardbound, or the first edition, but the price was reasonable and it was mine for less than five dollars.
Two pages in and I could see why any superintendent intent on collecting a public pension wouldn’t want your average kid to read this one. Naked lunch is filled with fantastic stories of absolute moral degeneracy that is easily taken in the wrong context, as the transcript of the trial of the book in Boston court attests.
Naked Lunch led to On the Road. The road led to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The test led to Fear and Loathing, both in Las Vegas and On the Campaign Trail of ’72. The fear led to A Farewell to Arms. The styles of writing were straightforward. The stories told were everything from descriptions of everyday, mundane events to wild stories involving sex, drugs, and a whole host of characters looming larger than life itself in the confines of my cerebral cortex.
In taking an objective look at the works of Burroughs, Hemingway and Thompson in their affect on my literacy, I found that I typically depend on a strange combination of all three of these writing styles when composing. It is a subconscious tendency, relating to the “fit and finish” of compositions. The words I write or type often don’t read right to me, unless they have certain elements from all three authors. Long ago, these elements formed a subconscious literacy impression that eventually became a cohesive standard of composing. I often find myself questioning these methods, or tendencies; wondering if I am merely copying the style of someone else, or if I truly had an original thought in the arrangement of a series of words while attempting to convey a thought. Am I just a plagiarizing hack devoid of real talent? Aren’t we all?
Burroughs had something to say about the matter of man and thinking machines in Naked Lunch, “The study of thinking machines teaches us more about the brain than we can learn by introspective methods. Western man is externalizing himself in the form of gadgets.”
Interestingly enough, William Seward Burroughs was a maker of mechanical calculating machines and founder of the American Arithmometer Company – the name was later changed to the Burroughs Corporation. He was also the grandfather of William Seward Burroughs II, the author of Naked Lunch. The firm became a giant in the calculating machine business and expanded into electronics and digital computers when these technologies developed.
Nofre et. al describe how mathematical formulae designed for calculating machines evolved into the concept of computer programming languages in their article for Technology and Culture entitled “When Technology Became Language: The Origins of the Linguistic Conception of Computer Programming, 1950–1960.”
Managers and educators thus no longer found it helpful to think of programming notations as attributes of individual machines, and began to draw on the disciplines of symbolic logic and linguistics to develop models of intelligibility that would enable abstraction away from the machine and toward the development of free-standing notations. (42)
I began to learn the basics of writing, or coding, in computer programming languages many years ago when I took a course in college dealing with the design and creation of webpages. I learned the basics of hardcoding webpages in hypertext markup language (HTML.) As the years progressed, I have learned a little about the workings of PHP, CSS, Java, Python and PowerShell.
Java and Python are well known examples of object-oriented programming languages. Objects are software bundles of related states and behaviors. Objects are built from classes that model the state and behavior of a real-world object. Classes inherit state and behavior from their super classes. Classes can implement interfaces to provide differing behaviors, and packages are namespaces for organizing both classes and interfaces in a logical manner.
This is where the banned books list and computer programming language heuristics come to confluence within my literacy. Genres and writing styles are similar to the methods used in computer programming, with letters, words, and paragraphs as the mathematical formulae used to elicit a certain response. The authors of my favorite books and the computer programming architects have been some of my sponsors of my ability to read, write, understand and communicate.
None of these people created programming languages or wrote books explicitly on my behalf. I highly doubt any of them considered themselves sponsors of literacy for more than a fleeting moment, if at all. Yet the fruits of their labors had an affect on my ability to communicate with others using the English language, via speech and the written word.
I typically compose by attempting to use common language to string together a series of concepts or facts that I have chosen to use in reinforcement a construct of thought. My internal debugger (the process of finding procedural faults and errors within a series of code) starts flashing warnings when a quantity of material I have compiled starts to read as ambiguous or strays from the overall tone I wish to impart.
My default routine resembles the writing styles of Burroughs, Hemingway and Thompson; yet I can think of no definitive evidence that these styles were attractive to me simply because of a passing reference to something dreamed up by librarians and publishers called the “banned books” list. I would agree that the list was a catalyst that sped up my introduction to these writers, but I certainly don’t think my reading habits would have been confined to the texts I was exposed to in a high school curriculum.
The way in which I structure my compositions is similar to the hierarchy used in the object-oriented programming languages. I decide upon a theme (object) and then I proceed to develop and organize a series of thoughts (classes), respite with facts and opinions that serve to make the overall theme perform an intended function. I utilize different subroutines (arguments, metaphors, etc.) within the thoughts presented to achieve different behaviors (interfaces). I use of different styles and approaches to the composition (packages) to keep the reader’s attention and get my point across.
Perhaps the programming languages are constructed the way they are because of long standing grammatical traditions within English, although it is far more probable the programming languages evolved to their current state because they have been developed from mathematical formulae using elements of the English language in order to facilitate faster composition by the programmers, as evidenced by a passage in the “When Technology Became Language” text below.
The early users of the term programming language were principally computer-user groups and computer-installation managers attempting to bring about the cross-machine compatibility of programs; common or universal notations would facilitate the exchange of programs among and within organizations, and would also provide a suitable vehicle for teaching programming in universities. (42)
I could continue to conceptualize, theorize and expand on the insights developed during this thought experiment, but I have grown weary of exploring the topic any further for the time being. Hopefully this exploration of two seemingly unrelated concepts and how they have affected my literacy has got you to think about your own concept of literacy and some of the factors that influenced how you communicate with the world.