On the Edge of Math and Code

Great stuff from Mark Marino… not only is the content fascinating, but the blog-sized presentation, for discusison, of a fundamental theoretical concept is a great example of what the blogging medium can do for (and to) scholarship.

Item for today: =

In Donald Knuth and Luis Trabb Pardo‘s article on the history of computers, the note the moment at which = moves from equivalency to assignment. Here is a moment where mathematical notation and code separate on the basis of assignment, where it moves from a real that represents abstractions to a realm that controls memory locations.

For all intents and purposes Algebra: x = 0; and computer code: x=0; seem to mean the same thing.

However, on the most fundamental levels, they are not. The one establishes equivalence of signs. The other tells the computer to store the value 0 in the location represented by x.

In CCS, we have not just a mathematical system, for surely much of algorithms is mathematical. However, when critics talk about the materiality of these performative declarations in programming languages, they are talking about this latter notion of x=2.

Again, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of critically analyzing mathematics. I just want to talk about this moment of the separation, where the computational instructions gain additional semantic meaning because there signs are not just representations, but commands with material ramifications. —Mark Marino, Critical Code Studies