An essay I wrote in the summer of 2020 with Iretiolu Akinrinade for The Community and the Algorithm: A Digital Interactive Poetics. The anthology is edited by Andrew Klobucar and is available at Vernon Press. There’s an online book launch on October 1, 2021. Big thanks to Ireti for her wonderful introduction and editorial support for the piece.
In Community Code: A thing, something, everything, and nothing, Taeyoon Choi depicts an abstraction of the natural world in an attempt to guide inquiries about how we can thrive in symbiosis with the magnificent living and non-living beings of the earth. In this exploratory essay he examines the poetics and politics of code, through artistic examples, metaphors and terrestrial inquiries. How can we create meaningful change in the Community Code, in order to transform our relationship to each other, technology, society and culture? Can computer codes become a tool for poetic and political exploration of being together? Can we reverse-engineer the tools that are traditionally used for oppression and exclusion of marginalized populations through gatekeeping and the hoarding of power, data, and resources? Can we unlearn the codes of control and manipulation to rethink all of our relationships to technology and the environment? Can we build social justice infrastructures, not limited to valuing sociality of proximity, but instead a recognition of a global commons we are obligated to enrich and maintain
Keywords: community, code, poetic computation, protocols, technological objects, symbiotic, COVID-19, digital relations
A conventional definition of community consists of people with shared regional ties or those who share culture, language, interests and traditions. In this chapter, Taeyoon Choi offers a response to the theme of Community Code by reflecting on his pandemic-propelled move from New York City to South Korea. He imagines the future along with his community of artists, technologists, and activists’ visions for realizing radically different futures of distributed, communal care.
Drawing from knowledge derived from the social disruption that COVID-19 prompted, with the non-conformist sensibility inherent to artists, activists, and critical theorists, this essay intends to prompt the imagination of a broader sense of community across boundaries of race and nation, as well as perceived difference and lack of personhood. In adopting such a world view, we can gather practices of accountability with which we can embed care within our codes of conduct and operations.
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown introduced global social fragmentation of perceived communities. Simultaneously, technologies became essential for survival as people relied on radio, television, internet, and wireless services for critical and rapidly changing information pertaining to the virus. The workplace, along with spaces of more casual sociality, faced new boundaries: whether at the threshold of one’s apartment door, or the geographic borders of states and countries — spaces only recently declared impermeable to citizens of certain privilege.
The differential impact of a socially distant world on people was quickly rendered more visible. Along with the inability for blue collar and service industry workers to ‘work from home’, the shortage of groceries, face masks, and essential medical resources in March 2020 in the United States exposed a failure in social welfare, public health care, and global supply chain. Additionally, the inability to social distance in government detention facilities reminded us that incarceration is a functional tool to relegate society’s most vulnerable to conditions conducive to death or increased socio-economic exploitation. Fortunately, in the moments of dire need, local community-based mutual aid initiatives became vital practice as many found themselves unable to rely on neither public infrastructures nor commercial services. While the term ‘mutual-aid’ was likely just reaching the mainstream, these local, decentralized infrastructures have long existed to fill the crevices of American and human rightlessness inherent in our global economic system.
Without disregarding tragedies that have transpired this year, I am soothed to see more conversations of communal care coming to fruition in light of COVID-19. I would also like to emphasize the viability of this de-structuring moment as a restructuring one. In the same way that apoptosis, or neural death, occurs to facilitate new development in the brain, which ultimately permits synaptic remodeling and long-lasting neural connectivity, the deconstructing of our social lives in 2020 can permit the emergence of responsible social obligation to a much broader community. At the introductory Seminar on Protocols hosted by The Vera List Center for Art and Design and The New School, Chancey Fleet, a Brooklyn-based accessibility advocate, described the technological response to COVID-19 by acknowledging it rests on assumptions of ‘reflexive digitality’. What some consider to be an easy transition can be one of unease for disabled people including low-income and elderly communities with low or no internet connection or outdated devices incompatible with the newest technology. Along with communicating the information that is seemingly important to abled people –‘abled’ meaning not dis-abled through relevant means– we must listen to a broader community to determine what is being withheld by our technologies. Have the respective creators considered that they are withholding visuospatial cues on Zoom and Google Meet, crucial for location and speaker information to someone who perceives without vision? Do creators of empathetic VR technologies hesitate before investing their time creating a system that commodifies pain and subjectivity? Do “disruptive technologists” consider obsolescence to be contextual, knowing all products end up somewhere? From production to disposal and the multidimensional ways in which creations are consumed, lie individuals, communities, and ecosystems that ought to be protected by our community code.
The broad structure of an aspirational community Taeyoon presents of what community ought to be, brings me back to the wisdom of Toni Morrison, adrienne maree brown, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and many other adherents of the Black Radical Tradition, a tradition that “is, inexactly, movement away from partition and exclusion, — indeed, its inverse” (Gilmore 237). The recognition of our interdependence and connectivity between beings with different lived experiences is foundational to strive for more equitable futures. Some of these same theorists inform the feeling that what we seek is an impossible task, citing exploitation and varying levels of personhood as crucial to the functioning of society (as we know it).
Even still, radical imagination is what we have to make alternative ways of living with one another and the creative technologist is someone with the liberty to both imagine and actualize. What they create is something similar to language, structured before and by the communicator. Taeyoon’s investigation of the life and death cycle of technological objects, paired with the stewardship responsibility of creators, has been reiterated across cultures and disciplines and reappears in different forms. In Toni Morrison’s use of the allegorical wise blind woman tested by her tormentors, the wise woman appropriately states, “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands” (Morrison). Where Toni, as a writer, reads the bird as language, in its multiple manifestations and applications, Taeyoon posits technologists can read it as code: of conduct, of operations, and the coded meanings in systems of code itself.
Community Code: A thing, something, everything and nothing
The New Normal World
Since co-founding the School for Poetic Computation in New York in 2013, I’ve been studying computer hardware and code, specifically programming languages, with a community of artists, educators, and engineers. The very definition of Community and Code is changing due to the global pandemic of 2019–2020. Rapid readjustment to recent confines has many people wondering about the enduring updates to our new normal. It feels as though we are entering a New Normal World. Therefore, it’s timely to redefine Community Code: what are the codes for technology in a post COVID-19 world? How are hackers, engineers, technology educators, and activists changing the way they write, share and publish their codes? What are the new concepts of community in the post COVID-19 world? Can a community of those who have nearly nothing in common, come together to build and maintain the codes of our New Normal World?
First, let’s consider who and what lives in the New Normal World. My imagination of this New Normal World is inspired by Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. There is the living: humans, animals, critters, microorganisms, and the breathing ecosystem. And there is the -living: things that exist but do not breathe. Technological objects, a broad term inspired by Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, including computers, smart devices, and biotechnologies, can be understood as both living and nonliving. Like us, technological objects have prescribed life and death cycles.
If you are open to imagining our New Normal World, not as a singular future, but multiple futures, time, and space created through many people worlding their worlds, I invite you to imagine the future Community Code with us. The concepts of care, accountability, and stewardship are key in working through these questions. I imagine travelling from the core of the earth to the world of celestial objects, beaming through levels of abstraction, from the layers of the Thing, Something, Everything and the Nothing. I seek to comprehend the continuity of community within these different spaces of abstraction.
While it’s common to think of computers as sleek metallic objects with a keyboard, mouse and screen, computers take on various material forms and perform a wide variety of operations. The ‘technical object,’ is not a material thing but a functioning: “The machine is a being that functions” (Simondon 151). Upon conceptualizing the technical object as a being with agency and a life form, we can come to an agreement that its components, its raw materials, have rights to be protected within the Community Code. Conversely, the technical object needs to be held to the values of Community Code when interacting with other members of our earthly community at large. Simondon’s concept of technological objects is a relation of functions, “the technical being evolves through convergence and self-adaption: It unifies itself internally according to a principle of inner resonance.” (ibid.) Through this inner resonance, movements of abstraction and repetition, the living and nonliving take up space in the earth and shape each other. The future Community Code may be a constellation of multiple living and nonliving beings, where the human connections with the natural resources and environment materialize as a distributed web of care. It will be a world which worlds a caring world.
Let us travel to a very hot and dense space to imagine a symbiosis with objects that are physical, technical, yet somewhat abstract. The inner core at the very center of the Earth is roughly 760 miles in radius and takes up a significant proportion of the earth’s mass. Its temperature is around 9806 °F which is similar to the temperature of the sun’s surface. The core’s hot temperature and the gradual cooling of the Earth’s interior generates magnetic waves (Alfe, Gillian & Price). Despite its significance in creating the Earth’s magnetic field, the earth’s inner core is, still, unknown to us. Much like the far away universe, galaxy MACS0647-JD, which is about 13.3 billion light-years away, a place no humans have ever visited, a place we only have a very limited information of, no human has ever been to the earth’s core (Gutro, Weaver & Villard). Nonetheless, the earth’s core is ever so present in our lives. If the core would not exist, the world as we know would disappear very quickly due to orbital decay, and we would be overexposed to the unbearable amount of radiation and solar wind (Lee). Unknown to us, we maintain a symbiotic relationship with the earth’s core. From the core of the earth to the gravitational field it produces, our community consists of all beings that socially interact.
In Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, sympoiesis applies to nature and culture that coexist in a system of co-creation. The living and nonliving, the biological and artificial, form interdependent relationships of ‘making-with.’ Recognition of sympoiesis requires a constant reconsideration of the life and death cycles of our human peers, and non-human helpers. We must reimagine our relationship to technological objects, the computers, the code that runs within as existing in symbiosis with the community who creates, maintains, and uses the technologies.
Sympoiesis is an enduring biological interaction between multiple biological organisms. In writing about the Wertheim sisters’ crocheted coral reefs, Haraway speaks of coral reefs as a sympoietic system, a complex and organic entanglement of multispecies in coexistence. While computers are primarily nonliving electronic devices, we spend a tremendous amount of time interacting with them, as tools of communication, control, calculation, and entertainment; they impact our lives and hold characteristic and forms that gradually adapt. After all, the computers come from the earth, its chips and hardware interfaces are made of rare earth minerals. Following their short life as consumer electronics or industrial machines, they go back to the earth, oftentimes as electronic waste that is difficult to recycle. Learning from Haraway’s definition of sympoiesis, we can understand nonliving things that are always connecting to the living; we are co-creating a world with the nonliving, such as computers which use binary representations, in a flux between the existential state of being (One) and non-being (Zero). This flux is reflective of cycles of life and death, a circular progression of existence in the living and nonliving. To facilitate much of this interaction, most of the computers today run on electricity, the potential differences between the ground and the voltage.
Between the technological object and social thought, lies conceptual and physical connectivity: social organization and creations, determining that which is given life, and between creations and use or abuse of resources, that which is subject to death. The maintenance of this precarious eco-system of life and death is presently unmet in part due to conceptions of community and mutual responsibility that is limited to our immediate surroundings or human-kins.
adrienne maree brown wrote in her 2017 book, “Nothing is nature is disposable. Part of the resilience of nature is that nothing is wasted… there are toxic materials… and yet nothing is disposable, the cycle of life ultimately makes use of everything” (Brown 131). Despite this truth, we collectively produce, consume, and dispose as if our concept of a product’s death is real and resolute. About fifteen years ago, I had a studio next to an electronic waste facility in an industrial area near Ilsan, South Korea. Each day I saw trucks coming into the facility, full of consumer electronics such as TVs, desktop computers, household electronics and phones, that would contribute to an infinitely growing mountain of debris in the facility. Workers went through the pile, sorting between items that can be recycled or salvaged, and those deemed suitable for final discard via export to the Philippines and other parts of the global south. Learning how electronics are made from rare earth minerals and the environmental impact of electronic toxic waste, I realized technical objects are also never separated from the earth and our bodies. We ought to appreciate our symbiotic relationship with technological objects through cycles of life and death, in theory and in practice.
Although the computers we use today look different from computers from the last decade, the inner workings of the Operating System, especially the UNIX systems and commands have not changed very much since the 1960s, if not earlier. We often take UNIX for granted. However, some artists and scholars have raised questions about the cultural implications of UNIX. Tara McPherson connects the modularity in the UNIX systems to the social modularity essential to maintaining a system of racial segregation. McPherson writes, “This push toward modularity and the covert in digital computation also reflects other changes in the organization of social life in the United States by the 1960s. For instance, if the first half of the twentieth century laid bare its racial logics, from “Whites Only” signage to the brutalities of lynching, the second half increasingly hides its racial “kernel,” burying it below a shell of neoliberal pluralism” (McPherson). Technological objects hold racial, gender, and other social biases of those who build them. If stewarded with care, technical objects can be used as tools of social cooperation and decentralized, grassroots organizing. For example, UNIX can be used to create non-oppressive Operating Systems, to forage tools of modularity towards emancipation, as opposed to oppression. I believe Technological Objects, even the ones that were originally created as tools of oppression, can be used to imagine and bring non-oppressive futures. There can be a way of life, a way of being with Technological Objects, that is different from our life with technological products today.
What would a nimbler network and node of the future Technological Objects look like? A collective called Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) declares their practice as “a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that future’s reality. This vision and practice derive its facets, tenets, and qualities from quantum physics and Black/African cultural traditions of consciousness, time, and space” (Black Quantum Futurism). Based out of Philadelphia, their work spans the intersection of music, digital media, performance, legal aids, and community support. BFQ’s holistic approach to building community through ubiquitous Afro-futurist organizing helps me shift in my thinking around technological objects towards a non-oppressive, social justice-oriented Community Code.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a moment of revelation of the severely precarious codes that run society today; the legal codes, technical codes, and commercial codes of operations. During the momentary slowing down of the highly synchronized, techno-futuristic society, our attention centered around archaic forms of self-perseverance; washing hands properly, stitching scrap fabrics to make face masks, physically distancing ourselves from one another to limit the spread of the infectious virus. There’s poetry in rediscovering low-tech solutions in a high-tech world, as the poetry speaks of the most emergent and necessary steps for collective survival. If the conventional relationship to technology were based on human use of the tools, consumption of the products, experience of the spectacles, we can think of different Community Code for the new world. It may begin with technical objects’ entanglement with the community, superposition of living and nonliving entities, and permitting the oscillation of multiple times and spaces in coexistence. These interdependent, co-existence of technical objects, creating habitats, and the shift between creative technology to community technology takes place in the Everything layer.
COVID-19 created a state of emergency for companies and states to rapidly adjust their legal and financial operations. The slowing down of capitalist machines during the quarantine and lockdown was a revelation of the various relationships we have, contribute to, and maintain. The code we use reflects and determines the society that exists today. When we think of protocols, we generally think of computer protocols, such as TCP/IP, HTTP, the grounding rocks of the internet and decentralized communications. It’s true if you want to understand how the world is communicating these days, and I mean ‘the world’ metaphorically as the bespoke communication of machines and databases, you need to read AWS’s protocols or Zoom’s API documentation. These documents hold both technical and social Community Code. How can we change the Community Code to a future that’s more equitable? I present three examples.
One. Protocols are a list of all agreements and rules that we encode to machines, and they are used by essentially all physical computers and servers consuming energy somewhere. In Computing, Climate Change, and All of our Relationships Nabil Hassein argues for an entanglement as not limited to humans and biological lifeforms but yearning towards the interdependent relationship with the nonliving entities, such as technologies. Hassein prompts us to rethink the meaning of (technical) code and (digital) community in the context of decolonization. Decolonization is understood as the arduous work of slowly changing our thinking, our languages, our codes, and our communities’ relationship to power. In technology, this begins with an active de-centering of the white and Western understanding of ourselves, the humans as ‘masters of tools.’ It’s important to think about the corporeal aspects of code, ecologies, and our relationships to living and nonliving entities. His call to action, to consider all of our relations as essentially interdependent webs, our complicities are very much a part of the ongoing crisis.
Two. The semantics of protocols matter, because they reflect the society that uses the protocols. In light of protests of police brutality and systemic racism in the United States, GitHub renamed their ‘master’ branch with the neutral term ‘main’ to abandon reference to the language of slavery (Cimpanu). On a practical level of linguistic decolonization, the name change can communicate care in code outside the very white, male programming archetype. On a physical level, semantic shifts can facilitate a reorientation of our bodies and minds with the earth and others. There are open debates about if corporate semantic shifts are efficient or performative and if the terms are even factually correlated with Black subjectivity. I think the real debates are to be had are between ourselves. What is it about mastery — power and domination — that is inconducive to collaboration, how does it, as Morrison put, ‘limit knowledge’ in this context? Mastery undermines the life in technology, conceptually limiting its life form. Just as we can take agency in language, programmers and technologists have a responsibility to take agency in rewriting coded language, and coding in alternative languages to better reflect the collaborative, multifaceted world we want to live in.
Three. Introducing beneficent protocols requires imagination and action. Artist and researcher Francis Tseng compiles a collection of resources on Aren.na channel State of Emergency: Things We Allegedly Can’t Have Except That We Can. The site is an accumulation of resources that were believed to be scarce, unattainable, or high cost, which became available to those who were initially unable to access it. The compilation of media related to ‘radical’ practices in progress, such as abolishing the SAT and ACT or methadone distribution to homeless people in a pandemic, are the very means of informing what can move from speculation to reality. In the New Normal World, we can live in a world beyond artificial scarcity, and actualize a world of radical generosity, manifested as love in the Nothing layer.
In the Spring of 2020, teachers at the School for Poetic Computation (SPFC) responded to COVID-19, and the movement for Black Lives and organizing against police brutality in the U.S. through their art, social justice organizing and community oriented mutual-aid projects. They sought out new ways of connecting with strangers far away and discovering a profound sense of friendship with someone they never met in real life. The school offered a wide variety of online courses for students in various places, all joining remotely for the first time. “What if all the software we used was made by people who love us?” was a leading question posed by Melanine Hoff, an artist and teacher at SPFC, led a 10-week, online class Digital Love Languages with the class stewards Max Fowler, Adina Glickstein, and Amber Officer-Narvasa. The students of Digital Love Languages, mostly first-time coders, learned the UNIX folder structure, web programming and Natural Language Processing. They created unique software for their friends, esoteric websites, collaborative playlists and various forms of care. I understood their attempts to connect with like-minded collectives to overcome the sensation of isolation. Their work inspired me to imagine the ‘Internet that loves us.’ The conventional software we use, such as text editors, or social networking apps, are developed by people who don’t know us, for a group of unidentified users. Instead of creating profit, what if our software was created to express love? The idea of love is commercialized and weaponized in today’s world. Even in the apps that are designed to help us find ‘love,’ the experience is often transactional and explicative. In ‘Digital Love Languages,’ the idea and practice of love is not limited to romance. Scott M. Peck said, “Love is an act of will… both an intention and an action.” In Community Code, love is creating a safe space for learning, to build a community of allies and organizers, and to share our thoughts via code through profound honesty. In the post COVID-19 world, we can imagine a world beyond artificial scarcity, to actualize a world of radical generosity. COVID-19 and the temporary slowing down of the worlds, the protests and organized actions against the prison industrial complex, and the wide awakening of the systemic racism in our organizations, shows us that other worlds already exist; it’s possible and necessary to change our worlds. That would be the world which worlds a caring world.
I wrote this essay between July and October of 2020, between New York City and rural South Korea, with assistance and in conversation with Iretiolu Akinrinade who was splitting time between New Orleans and Chicago. This essay is an attempt to expand the definition of community to inclusive of the living and nonliving: animals, critters, composts, humans, waste, and technical objects. Code is the software, hardware and code of conduct that shape our material realities. Community and code are never separate. Therefore, I wrote about the artists, designers, technologists, and philosophers in my community who’ve inspired me to rethink my relationship code. COVID-19 brought a chance to reset our Community Code, the modes of operation in our organizations, schools, museums, technologies, and our relationships with each other. A moment of emancipation begins with the code of love, care, and mutual support.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to relocate to South Korea, moving out of New York which has been a personal and professional home for the last decade. I am located in Seoul now, but I plan to eventually return to a mountainous village where I spent time in my childhood. I imagine farming, engaging with local communities and continuing my art and teaching practice there. While it’s tempting to turn to a romantic vision of new rural life, I’m aware that “going back to where I came from” is not simply reverse movement to a place of innocence. The reverse migration, a pattern that’s common among city dwellers returning to their hometown or country of origin, also results in the world-as-we-know becoming less integrated. It’s easy for us to hide in our cultural comfort zones, setting up visible and invisible walls around our national, cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic borders. For those who are searching for Community Code in the New Normal World, the challenge is to keep our creative and cultural practices open to new ideas, different identities, and work towards solidarity, while keeping our daily practices local, less consumptive, and less wasteful. How can we stay connected and work together, when we are far away and can’t come together in a conventional sense? The world we know today, is one possible manifestation of many possibilities. It’s time to imagine and live in multiple worlds. Technological objects can be used as tools of exploitation, or as vehicles of emancipation. If we believe in multiplicities, acceptance and inclusion of diverse identities and interdependencies, we can create technological objects that have symbiotic relationships with the living and nonliving, here-and-now.
How can we create meaningful change in the Community Code, in order to transform our relationship to each other, technology, society and culture? Can computer codes become a tool for poetic and political exploration of being together? Can we reverse-engineer the tools that are traditionally used for oppression and exclusion of marginalized populations through gatekeeping and the hoarding of power, data, and resources? Can we unlearn the codes of control and manipulation to rethink all of our relationships to technology and the environment? Can we build social justice infrastructures, not limited to sociality of proximity but recognition of a global commons that we build and maintain for ourselves and others? Ultimately, can we consider ourselves as the stewards of cultural commons, inhabitants of the New Normal World? May these queries guide your worldview, your life, and your practice.
For us, those who are seeking new ways of life after the traumatic events of 2020, Community Code is a call for action towards liberation of the people who are traditionally marginalized by the codes of society and a striving for beneficence towards our collective home on earth. For those of us who were not granted equitable community membership through systems of exclusion and alienation, by intentional neglect and tokenization, and those who empathize with all marginalized by race, class, disability, gender, and sexuality, here is our chance.
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