On Procedural Literacy and Locative Media

At the beginning of the year, I took a coding class in the CCT program to gain a valuable professional skill (and, I’ll admit, to learn how to follow the conversations of my programmer friends). With my research interest in locative media growing, too, I thought it was time to learn some programming to get a broader sense of the thought process behind coding.

The course was on Processing, a Java-based language with a strong online community of programmers at openprocesing.org interested in design. The community that the site, which also has dedicated classroom pages for easy use in different courses, houses made me think about how students can be better engaged in the theory and practice of programming. Many of our final projects were either aesthetic, given the plethora of artistic work featured on openprocessing.org, or gaming-oriented.

Gaming and pedagogy are linked frequently in scholarly writing. Michael Mateas (2008), an Associate Professor of Computer Science at UC Santa Cruz who uses Processing in the classroom, explains how games provide a sound introduction to programming:

Games immediately force a focus on procedurality; a game defines a procedural world responsive to player interaction. Additionally, . . . games force a simultaneous focus on simulation and audience reception. A game author must build a dynamic, real-time simulation world such that, as the player interacts in the world, they have the experience desired by the author (p. 88).

For comparable reasons, I think we must also consider locative media in exposing students to the world of programming.

Locative projects rely on innovative uses of GPS technologies for products such as artistic renderings of place, visualizations of urban data, and geo-tagging or checking-into different locations. So, if we wish to emphasize how computation is an expressive medium for a more procedurally literate society, why not engage users with a ubiquitous technology that mediates place, a central representation of meaning in our lives? A core aspect of learning is making subject matter self-referential, and locative media appeals to the drive to understand our surroundings. Place, after all, is inherently an expressive concept.

Urban areas, particularly, are rife with data to be manipulated by coding projects. Consider iPavement, configurations of tiles with microprocessors that could “aid cities in improving services to tourists and locals. Its analytics app, for instance, sends data concerning pedestrian traffic flow . . . to the city’s servers to be evaluated with sensory data collected from other sources” (Krauser, 2012, para. 6). Such a technology shows that there is a great deal of urban data that can be re-imagined through locative media, albeit with potential complexities in representation. Due to this, locative media not only presents an intriguing challenge to budding programmers, it also forces them to consider how computation is ever-present and how it can be used to develop useful, innovative projects.

Moreover, locative media engages with deeper issues with representation through locative art. Take Christian Nold’s Bio Mapping, for example. He provides alternative representations of several different cities, such as San Francisco and Greenwich, which gauge subjects’ emotions while walking through the cities using a device that measures galvanic skin response. He also includes subjects’ annotations to describe what they were experiencing at different points in their walk of the city to complement the results. Such an artistic endeavor invites questions of what exactly it means to portray people and cities by means of emotions.

I feel that such projects can provoke meaningful conversations on the ubiquity of computing and its significance in allowing for unique ways of capturing our surroundings. Like gaming, locative media can foster discussions on procedurality in focusing on a given developer’s intent and how this intent manifests in the procedural operations behind the piece.

Works Cited

Krauser, M. (2012, June 21). Tread carefully, sidewalks just got a little smarter. Next American City. Retrieved from http://americancity.org/daily/entry/tread-carefully-sidewalks-just-got-a-little-smarter.

Mateas, M. (2008). Procedural literacy and games. In Drew Davidson (Ed.), Beyond fun: Serious Games and media (pp. 87-96). ETC press.

Nold, C. (2007).  San Francisco Emotion Map.  Retrieved from  http://www.sf.biomapping.net/map.htm.

Ned Prutzer

Ned Prutzer is a former CCT Graduate Student.