Digital Arts and New Media: MFA: Collaboration, Innovation, Social Impact

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danm principal faculty, warren sack on "work and machine languages"

DANM Prof. Warren Sack will present his paper, "Work and Machine Languages" at the international colloquium, "L'organogenèse. Pour un nouveau paradigme de recherche en art et design" to take place October 15-16, 2015.



The artisan – like the artist and the designer of today – was frequently figured as a taciturn intuitive worker able to operate and practice but unable to articulate or interrogate machines, instruments, processes of production and manufacture.  In the “Preliminary Discourse” to the Encyclopedia, philosopher Denis Diderot wrote “Most of those who engage in the mechanical arts have embraced them only by necessity and work only by instinct. Hardly a dozen among a thousand can be found who are in a position to express themselves with some clarity upon the instrument they use and the things they manufacture. We have seen some workers who have worked for forty years without knowing anything about their machines.”  And yet, Diderot – the son of an artisan – reported that “[w]e approached the most capable of them in Paris and in the realm. We took the trouble of going into their shops, of questioning them, of writing at their dictation, of developing their thoughts and of drawing therefrom the terms peculiar to their professions, of setting up tables of these terms and of working out definitions for them…”  He summarizes saying “With [the artisans], it was necessary to exercise the function in which Socrates gloried, the painful and delicate function of being midwife of the mind,…” In this paper I will argue that Diderot midwifed the birth of a language to describe artisans’ work and their machines: the root of what we know today as programming languages.  By printing as text what the artisans usually just spoke in the workshop, the Encyclopediaists paired the mechanical arts and the liberal arts and so birthed what is the ancestor of computation and the articulation of what computer scientist Herbert Simon has argued is the “science of design.”