Hello Worlds: Why humanities students should learn to program

A wonderfully readable, thought-provoking article about the intersection between the worlds of words and computer programming — both ways of modeling and human capabilities, experiences, and desires.

It used to be that we in English departments were fond of saying there was nothing outside of the text. Increasingly, though, texts take the form of worlds as much as words. Worlds are emerging as the consummate genre of the new century, whether it’s the virtual worlds of Second Life or World of Warcraft or the more specialized venues seen in high-end simulation and visualization environments. Virtual worlds will be to the new century what cinema was to the last one and the novel to the century before that.Importantly, “world” here means something very much like model, a selective and premeditated representation of reality, where some elements of the real are emphasized and exaggerated, others are distorted and caricatured, still others are absent altogether. Virtual worlds are interactive, manipulable, extensible; they are not necessarily games, though they may support and contain games alongside other systems. Virtual worlds are sites of exploration, simulation, play. We will want many virtual worlds, not few, because reality can be sliced and sampled in an infinite variety of ways.

All programming entails world-making, as the ritual act of writing and running Hello World reminds us. Virtual worlds simply lend literal and graphical form to this ideal. It’s no accident that what was arguably the very first virtual world, Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure, a text-only game programmed in 1975 depicting the user’s exploration of a cave (it launched a whole genre of commercial successors), was embraced by programmers who saw unraveling the game’s puzzles and tricky underground passages as a parable of their art. — Matt Kirschenbaum, Chronicle. (See also the same author’s digital humanities sidebar.)