A dynamic point of departure

In this post, I will be thinking aloud about which text to choose as the point of departure through which to get a general picture of this time of transition. I am trying to work this out and am not sure how technical I want to be. Feedback is welcome.

By point of departure, I am referring to Auerbachian ansatzpunkt briefly covered in an earlier post. So, what could this point of departure be?

Given the growing trend of Services as a Software Substitute (SaaSS), increasing levels of abstraction, and the use of the virtual machine that is the browser (as per the practice in so many workflows in 2022), I thought that I would try to find a code snippet that accents these trends.

More specifically, I wanted to find a snippet of commonly-used code that complicates how the document is rendered, e.g. through types of hypermedia as the engine of application state or “RESTful JSON APIs”. I am still trying to work this out and am not sure if this is an example of an area I need to let go of in my background research.

This is an example of tech advancement, but the question can be raised as to whether this is the best way to specifically deal with the text of documents. As a greenhorn hacker, I would doubt my vantage point, but it happens that just yesterday this problem was addressed by Alex Schroeder:

JavaScript is fine when writing webapps and the problem is only when everything is an app.

Documents have many positive aspects and forcing people to use an app (anything with Javascript) means that almost always the experience degrades: less accessibility, less freedom in layout, theming, archiving, printing, navigation, and so on.

The two problems are thus: apps instead of documents, and badly designed apps.
I am considering something like the following code as my point of departure, which I took from Aaron Smith:
const script = document.createElement('script')
script.src = '/my/script/file.js'

The non-programmer can understand this has something to do with text (though addressing this properly would require further explanation). It is precisely text that is undergoing massive manipulation at this time in history. I am using the word manipulation in multiple senses, though from a pedagocial view, one wants accessibility of abstract ideas to be comprehensible and manipulable by the maximum number of people (I am drawing on work by Goodyear & Retalis here).

But text served in certain ways is not universally or deeply manipulable. To give just one example, the ability to serve text dynamically in many ways prioritizes presentation over content.

This can lead to the development of what Andy Crouch calls the “superpower zone”:

I describe the superpower zone as . . . the exhilaration of having some technologically-assisted ability, whether it’s pressing the accelerator in a car or scrolling through huge amounts of information or photographs online. It’s the sensation that I am getting a great deal done with very little effort. It’s quite habit-forming . . . And what the superpower zone gives us, and what the superpowers in technology afford us, is a reduction in complexity, a reduction in the sensation of effort, and an increase in the sensation of efficacy. That’s like a drug . . .

By contrast, a way to slow down our technological interactions is to actually engage with the digital tools that are “serving” us content (that is a bad pun).

I am slowing down through a mixture of learning to tailor the digital tools I use (which, for me, has been tied up with Emacs and free software) and then — when problems emerge — trying to build a better picture of how these tools work. The most useful approach I have taken to building this bigger picture was to try to understand something about compiling (first mentioned in my GUIX post.)

It turns out that learning about compilers was serendipitous because understanding compiling helps understand the “virtual machine that is the browser”, to quote Alex. The connection between the two is hinted at in this Code Newbie interview with Thorsten Ball.

In the mean time, because I want to use old student website material from the course websites that I made (never thinking this day would come, and having only downloaded the MySQL file of that text), I am learning about databases, which has been extremely helpful in building a picture of how contemporary computing works.

To quote Kieran Healy, who was discussing this in the context of data sets:
More often than not, the stage between having collected (or found) some data and being able to analyze it is frustrating, awkward, and filled with difficulties particular to the data you are working with. Things are encoded this way rather than that; every fifth line has an extra column; the data file contains subtotals and running headers; the tables are only available as PDFs; the source website has no API, and so on.

To conclude on a more general note, knowing how to query our texts, knowing how to inquire into the meaning of our documents, is important to human development. This simple point can be obscured — or further complicated — through virutal interfacing. Perhaps a point of departure that would illuminate where we are at this time in history could bring light to that.

Post generated on 21 July, lightly modified 22 July to increase transparency of the questions I have about whether I am understanding the subject and whether I should attempt to be this technical in the book. Updated 28 July. As always, feedback and comments are welcome.

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