Chapter 1
Introduction: In Dark Territory


Figure 1: “300,000 pages of code. Or 60 minutes of triple-X rubber-and-leather interactive bondage porno. Technology can be used for beauty, or debasement. And until you plug it in, you’ll just never know.”

The 1995 Steven Seagal action film Under Siege 2 tells of an elaborate flow of codes: Villain Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian) hijacks a train and puts a CD-ROM with missile launch codes into a computer to assume control over a global, satellite-based weapon system and blackmail the U.S. government. He trades binary access codes for extortion money, money that itself is digital zeros and ones flowing around the glob to offshore bank accounts. A phantasm of codes as an omnipotent force rules the hijacked train. Seagal’s character, one man army Casey Ryback, and his Apple Newton pocket computer (which sends out a critical fax message to the U.S. army), embody the anti-phantasm. Ryback stands for old-fashioned physics battling symbolic code wizardry, hardware against software. When Ryback kills Dane in the end and a train crash cuts off the satellite link, physics wins over logic. It is furthermore the victory of one genre within the film over another, fistfighting realism over utopian techno imagination, just like in every fantastic action film from James Bond to The Terminator where villain science fiction technology is doomed to be destroyed in the end.

This booklet attempts to show that algorithmic code and computations can’t be separated from an often utopian cultural imagination that reaches from magic spells to contemporary computer operating systems. 1 “300,000 pages of code. Or 60 minutes of triple-X rubber-and-leather interactive bondage porno. [. . . ] And until you plug it in, you’ll just never know.” This dialogue line sums up utopian and dystopian imagination reaching from omnipotence to obscenity projected onto computer codes. In the end, the decoding of the codes is not a formal, but a subjective operation. Boiling down to either “beauty” or “debasement,” two classical modes of aesthetics since 18th century philosophy, these codes are ultimately about human perception and imagination.

The science fiction of the film scene relies on a gap between the computer code and a meaning made up by the human viewer. This meaning can’t be perceived until the initial code has been transformed several times, from the zeros and ones on the CD-ROM to, for example, pixels on a video screen and eventually a “triple-X rubber-and-leather interactive bondage porno” image in the mind of the spectator. The wider the gap between code and perception, the wilder the imagination. The more abstract a code, the more speculative the meaning that may be read into that code. Long before Steven Seagal, codes stirred up cultural imagination just because they were open to any reading. Western culture believed Egyptian hieroglyphs to hold divine powers until the Rosetta translation stone, found by Napoleon’s army in the early 19th century, debunked them as ordinary writing. Hieroglyphs on Freemasonic buildings and documents are a remnant of the older belief. The 16th century Voynich Manuscript, written in an as yet unknown alphabet, unknown language and containing obscure pictorial illustrations, has today not yet been deciphered although many expert cryptographers have tried. It is not even clear whether the manuscript contains a cypher at all. It might have been crafted just to create the illusion of a cryptogram. According to other theories, it might be written in a private Thai or Vietnamese alphabet, or by Cathar heretics in a mixture of Old French and Old High German. Artistic speculations on the Voynich Manuscript include a story by science fiction writer Colin Wilson who links it to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. In a contemporary orchestra piece by Swiss-German composer Hanspeter Kyburz, it serves as a musical score that anticipates 20th century experimental score notations of John Cage and others.

As speculative codes, Egyptian hieroglyphs (in their two different historical readings), the Voynich Manuscript and Travis Dane’s CD-ROM render “code” ambiguous between its traditional meaning of a cryptographic code, i.e. a rule for transforming symbols into other symbols, and code in its computational meaning of a transformation rule for symbols into action. Ever since computer programmers referred to written algorithmic machine instructions as “code” and programming as “coding,” “code” not only refers to cryptographic codes, but to what makes up software, either as a source code in a high-level programming language or as compiled binary code, but in either case as a sequence of executable instructions. With its seeming opacity and the boundless, viral multiplication of its output in the execution, algorithmic code opens up a vast potential for cultural imagination, phantasms and phantasmagorias. The word made flesh, writing taking up a life of its own by self-execution, has been a utopia and dystopia in religion, metaphysics, art and technology alike. The next chapters will reconstruct the cultural and imaginative history of executable code. From magic spells to contemporary computing, this speculative imagination has always been linked to practical—technical and artistic—experimentation with algorithms. The opposite is true as well. Speculative imagination is embedded in today’s software culture. Reduction and totality, randomness and control, physics and metaphysics are among the tropes it is obsessed with, often short-circuiting their opposites. Computer users know these obsessions well from their own fears of crashes and viruses, bloatware, malware and vaporware, from software “evangelists” and religious wars over operating systems, and their everyday experience with the irrationality of rational systems. After all, “until you plug it in, you’ll just never know.”