The School for Poetic Computation is an artist run school in New York which lives and promotes very open and collaborative ideas around learning and technology. The very fluid relationship between being a student and a teacher and co-learning amongst students drew us to their school and we believe they provide a remarkable example of how things can be done differently and more engagingly. Sarah Groff Palermo who has been a student and teacher at sfpc and Zach Lieberman, one of the founders, graciously answered our questions.
E-180 Magazine — Can you explain briefly what poetic computation is and why you feel there is a need for a school around the topic? Perhaps more interestingly at this point—after a few sessions having been completed—has the school fulfilled your intentions? How has it differed?
Sarah Groff Palermo — To me, poetic computation is the act of emphasizing the human nature of computers, both in that computers are a human creation, with biases and other fallibility built in, and in the sense that computers are fantastic tools for human expression and investigation, which I would say, is what most makes humans human.
Recently I read an essay from JCR Licklider, who was instrumental in the creation of the infrastructure that supported the development of computers and the internet as we know them, and who spent a lot of time imagining what personal computing could be like, and in this essay he talks about Human-Machine symbiosis, where neither is augmenting the other but working together for mutual benefit, in the biological sense of the word. And these ideas were so humane and lovely and it makes me sad I don’t necessarily see them in mainstream computing today. Instead of finding ways to live with machines, so much work is put into making machines not-human.
[C]omputers are fantastic tools for human expression and investigation, which I would say, is what most makes humans human.
When I lived in San Francisco, the belly of the current technologist culture, I was surprised and appalled by all the programmers and other tech workers who had this super naive and uncritical stance towards the tech they were creating: this positivist faith in machines and meritocracy and progress that was blind to the world in which they existed, the problems they were exacerbating, the very concept that “objectivity” is not an actual thing.
Poetic computation is a refutation of all that. And so, while I primarily think of SFPC as a school in the sense of “the place we go to learn these techniques,” I think it is also possible to think of it in the second sense, as a group of people who hold to the human in the computer, whichever of the techniques they prefer.
Zach Lieberman — I think poetic computation is about exploring the aesthetic implications of computation, what does it mean to use software and hardware in experimental and creative ways. It’s also a reaction to the term “creative coder” which is used more widely to describe this medium. We like the term poet over coder, it’s almost just a change of reference, “do I want to be a ‘coder’ or do I want to be a ‘poet’” ?
We’re in the third year and the school has really exceeded our expectations, both in terms of what the teachers and participants do during the term, but also, in terms of the strength of the community that’s been building.
The school is artist run and puts emphasis on creating a community and on learning from peers. Why do you feel this is a good learning environment and where do you feel it might be better than a more traditional setting?
Sarah – It’s the anti-authoritarian nature of the set-up that really distinguishes it. I’m back in traditional education now—in a Masters program—and the set-up of one-way knowledge flow, of just having to take whatever the person teaching dishes out, stands in stark contrast to the way classes felt at SFPC. It may be because it is artist-run, it may just be because of the kinds of people who start an artistic school, but at SFPC the focus was on sharing our particular knowledge among ourselves. And that is a super empowering feeling: when everyone knows something different and it is our responsibility to share what we know and pull from others what they know, the fluid reality of learning and knowledge is much more apparent than when you are at the end of someone else’s monologue.
There is also the amazingness of knowing you have something to teach and something to learn from each of your cohort that makes you feel like a team instead of just people sitting at the same table. I have a great feeling for everyone in my term that rivals some of the best sports teams I’ve been on. And I like to think that no matter how much time has passed, we will always be glad when we see one another again.
I do sometimes wonder how this is also related to age, if being the same age as my professors makes their claim to an institutional authority seem more contingent than in the relation between a teacher and an elementary-school student; but I am not sure because I remember not being particularly convinced of my elementary school teacher’s claims to power either.
Finally, I am not sure peer learning can be separated from hands-on learning. As I go back into school, I am struck by how much of our learning is meant to happen outside the classroom and either alone or in informally organized groups. And it is so much more work for so much less knowledge than was sitting together with electronics and peers and a good puzzle to figure out.
Can you give us some examples of classes, workshops or assignments you run and how do they foster—are perhaps are made better—by the students collaborating together?
Zach — There are classes in hardware, software and theory. Those represent basically the three tent-poles which make up the curriculum. For hardware, we have classes like “handmade computers,” which focuses on analog computation, students learn how to build computers from scratch—starting with resistors and wires, building logic gates and half-adders and adders. For software, we focus on different types of languages, there’s a class called “radical computer science” where participants learn the history of computer science, but also learn how to make new programming languages. There’s also classes in generative design, this term participants are doing a session called “recreating the past” where they are recoding famous artworks that were made with code in order to understand them deeper and to get a better sense of the differences between tools. In theory, participants read different writers and theorists and write responses, as well as learn practical skills like grant writing, artists statements, etc.
We love collaboration—one of the first exercises we do in the school is called the human fax machine, and in it we create an environment where students need to work together to translate an image into sound, transmit the sound to another group and then decode the sound back into a drawing. We are trying to explain a bit of what code and “encoding” feels like, we like that the first activities for the term are not in front of a computer screen, which can be a very solitary experience, but working together, standing up, jamming, drawing and active. It’s an important reminder to everyone that we should not just get lost in our own screens.
You talk about “an emerging culture of open source and transparent education.” You even have your finances posted online. Is this mostly a statement of how you believe things should work or are you specifically looking to enable others to re-create the model and why?
Zach — I taught for 10 years at a large university and there was almost no transparency to how decisions were made. I saw tuition rise and rise but I never saw what that meant practically, and it was quite opaque to me to understand where the money was going. SFPC tries to be as open as possible with budgets and information about how the school is run. For one thing, it helps students understand better what they are getting. For example, here, there’s no fancy equipment because we’d rather put the money into people. You can see exactly what we pay teachers, what we pay visiting lecturers, admin, etc. It also helps if someone wants to recreate the school, we’d like what we are doing to be a kind of model, and hopefully by publishing our info, we make it easier for someone to understand what we’ve done right and wrong. I think we could be doing a lot more to publish but I’m happy that’s part of the ethos of the school and I’m proud of what we’ve been doing so far.
I tend to see a link between “non-degreed” schools like yours and ideas like “code is law” and “show your work,” i.e. what you can do and show counts more than any diploma. Do you agree and if so do you see this concept as something on the edge or a broader way forward?
Sarah – This is a super interesting question—well an interesting phenomenon: the idea that now the work counts more than the credential. In some ways this is becoming more true: with the web and alternate methods of cultural dissemination, gatekeepers and credentials matter less than just putting your work out there and letting it show your awesomeness. And SFPC was definitely a chance for me to take the time to make the kind of cool work I can do, plus the community to get eyes on it.
But—and this is a huge but—for life, for holistic success, credentials or other sources of social power still matter a lot. I can make great things but I also have an Ivy-league degree (still inscribed in Latin!) to back up what I know. Or to serve as a stamp on the claims I make. Most of the teachers involved with SFPC have graduate degrees.
So I would say that a credential is no longer sufficient. But trying to promulgate the idea that they don’t matter at all strikes me as dangerous, especially for people who are not white men and have to work so hard to be taken seriously in the first place.
It seems to be common at sfpc to have students become teachers, how does that work? Do they take over existing classes or do you discover specific talents / interests and ask them to develop a class?
Sarah – I am not sure why exactly Taeyoon & Lauren reached out to me. But I taught a subset / version of a class that I fell in love with in my session: Ramsey Nasser’s Radical Computer Science. In his class, we talked a lot about computer science history, the development and assumptions of programming languages, and writing compilers. So for the short summer session I taught Talking to Computers, where I mostly focused on programming language taxonomy and compiler creation. Together with the class we wrote a short interpreter, something I learned from Ramsey, and then some went on to write their own.
Our concept of the school is actually really simple: put curious people in a room and see what comes out of it.
In an essay on learning machines, Alan Turing compares minds to sub-critical atomic piles, with ideas as the neutrons that can kick off a reaction. In the case of SFPC, classes feel like these neutrons, moving from mind to mind, giving off mutated ideas/classes that the next pile then takes up. And so Ramsey’s compiler class becomes Mariko’s textile language and maybe a future class on textiles and computing.
Zach — I think that is a natural outgrowth of community. Our concept of the school is actually really simple: put curious people in a room and see what comes out of it. It’s rewarding to see we are creating the kind of place that’s open enough to invite different modes of participation and I’m excited to see what the next years will bring.