Dagstuhl seminars are week long free form meetings between different disciplines centred around computer science. The location is a specially designed complex in the German countryside, and activities include long walks in the surrounding hills, a well equipped and beautiful music room and a well stocked wine cellar.
Our seminar was called ‘Collaboration and learning through live coding’, organised by Alan Blackwell, Alex McLean, James Noble and Julian Rohrhuber and included people from the fields of Software Engineering, Computer Science Education as well as plenty of practising livecoders and multidisciplinary researchers.
Discussion was wide ranging and intense at times, and the first job was to sufficiently explain what livecoding actually was – which turned out to require performances in different settings:
1. Explanatory demo style livecoding: talking through it as you do it.
2. Meeting room coffee break gigs: with a closely attentive audience.
3. The music room: relaxed evening events with beer and wine.
So Dagstuhl’s music room was immediately useful in providing a more ‘normal’ livecoding situation. It was of course more stressful than usual, knowing that you were being critically appraised in this way by world experts in related fields! However it paid off hugely as we had some wonderful interpretations from these different viewpoints.
One of the most important for me was the framing of livecoding in terms of the roots of software engineering. Robert Biddle, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carleton University put it into context for us. In 1968 NATO held a ‘Software Components Conference’ in order to tackle a perceived gap in programming expertise with the Soviet Union.
This conference (attended my many of the ‘big names’ of programming in later years) led to many patterns of thought that pervade the design of computers and software – a tendency for deeply hierarchical command structures in order to keep control of the arising complexity, and a distrust of more adhoc solutions or any hint of making things up as we go along. In more recent times we can see a fight against this in the rise of Agile programming methodologies, and it was interesting to look at livecoding as a part of this story too. For example it provides a way to accept and demonstrate the ‘power to think and feel’ that programming give us as humans. The big question is accessibility, in a ubiquitously computational world – how can this reach wider groups of people?
Ellen Harlizius-Klück works with three different domains simultaneously – investigating the history of mathematics via weaving in ancient Greece. Her work includes livecoding, using weaving as a performance tool – demonstrating the algorithmic potential of looms and combinations of patterns. Her work exposes the hidden shared history of textiles and computation, and this made a lot of sense to me as at the lowest level the operations of computers are not singular 0’s and 1’s as is often talked about, but actually in terms of transformations of whole patterns of bits.
Mark Guzdial was examining livecoding through the lens of education, specifically teaching computer science. The fact that so many of us involved in the field are also teaching in schools – and already looking at ways of bringing livecoding into this area, is noteworthy, as is the educational potential of doing livecoding in nightclub type environments. Although here it works more on the level of showing people that humans make code, it’s not a matter of pure mathematical black boxes – that can be the ground breaking realisation for a lot of people.
Something that was interesting to me was to concentrate on livecoding as a specifically musical practice (rather than also a visual one) as there are many things about perceiving the process with a different sense from your description of it that are important. Julian Rohrhuber pointed out that “you can use sound in order to hear what you are doing” – the sound is the temporal execution of the code – and can be a close representation of what the computer is actually doing. This time based approach is also part of livecoding working against the notion that producing an ‘end result’ is important, Juan A. Romero said that “if you’re livecoding, you’re not just coding the final note” – i.e. the process of coding is the artform.
In terms of a school teaching situation sound is also powerful, as described by Sam Aaron, livecoder and creator of Sonic Pi. A child getting a music program to work for the first time in a classroom is immediately obvious to everyone else – as it is broadcast as sound, inspiring a bit of competition and ending up with a naturally collaborative learning experience.
It’s impossible to cover all the discussions that we had, these are just the ones I happened to get down in my notebook, but it was a great opportunity to examine what livecoding is about now in relation to other practices, where it came from and where it might go in the future.