First Monday

Coding the classroom: Technology and the practice of language

Coding the classroom: Technology and the practice of language by Claudia Herbst

The technology of the Information Age depends on programming languages for functionality. Because programming languages ultimately affect the production of language digitally, programming languages will inevitably demonstrate a lasting effect on the process of writing. Hence it is important to recognize the impact of programming languages on the production of language. It may well be the necessary first step in understanding technology’s reverberating presence in the classroom.


The need for perfection
Unorthodox writing practices
The case of hypertext





Over the course of the past two decades, the computer has frequently been compared to the printing press, both in terms of its technological relevance as well as its resonating social impacts. The printing press has afforded scholars a larger historical context that has facilitated in-depth studies on its many effects, not least of all its effects on language as a medium for expression. Conversely, the computer is a tool that is much newer; it offers far less history to look back on and far fewer points of reference as a tool applied in the production of language.

Until quite recently, the tools we used for the production of language were physical objects, such as clay tablets, papyrus, the pen and the brush, the printing press, and typewriters; today, contrariwise, we apply software in the process of writing. Technology and language have long been interconnected. However, what has immanently changed is that today technology is language. Software, as all media-based information in the Information Age, essentially consists of language. Behind the interface that appears on the desktop when opening software such as Microsoft Word or Word Perfect is a series of written instructions and commands that enable the user to apply it in the production of language. Or, put differently, in the Information Age, language is the tool that sustains the production of language.



The need for perfection

The effects of the printing press on language and culture are not understood outside of the language practice associated with it; this would, for obvious reasons, make no sense. Some maintain that learning how to read and write has confronted us with something bigger than literacy and link alphabet literacy to such key historical events as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of democracy, mass education, nationalism, and capitalism [ 1]. The technology at work in these reverberating events was the printing press; its role in the spread of literacy and thus social organizations is apparent. Less apparent is that the programming language that inform today’s writing technology will equally reverberate; by way of technology, programming languages opaquely inform our behavior and thus, in due course, our thinking. Especially younger generations are keenly aware of the import of programming languages as programming languages, along with English and foreign language classes, have been part of high school curricula for some time now. The influence of technology’s languages is likely to be widespread but in potentially no other arena have programming languages been as influential as the arena of language itself and the rules of its production.

Marshall McLuhan notes that nobody ever made a grammatical error in a non-literate society [ 2]. Writing technology has traditionally led to the creation of rules and standardized forms of writing. In a continuation of this process, the production of programming languages requires absolute perfection. Language rules were once reinforced as literacy spread; the printing press introduced the quest for correct spelling, grammar, and pronunciation. Today, any error in the syntax of programming languages, comparable to a typographical or a grammatical error in natural languages, represents not a mere flaw in the text but is likely to result in failure and uselessness of parts, if not the text as a whole. The success of a computer program depends on the absolute conformity from their authors as the difference between an upper and a lower case letter can cause a program to fail to execute.

Rules are no longer a matter of form, they are quintessential; no room is allowed for irregularities of any type, mistakes are no longer forgivable blunders but detrimental, a threat to the very applicability, and therefore purpose, of the text. The precision necessary when writing programming languages is palpable not only for the author of technology but also for the user of technology. For instance, when a spelling mistake occurs in the writing of an address label, the letter by all likelihood will still reach its destination; when a comparable typographical error occurs in the typing of a URL on the Internet, the Web browser by all likelihood will respond with an error message. Likewise, depending on whether a computer operates based on a case-sensitive system, not differentiating between file names such as 'computer,' 'Computer,' and 'COMPUTER' can result in the loss of files as some systems differentiate between the different spellings while others do not. The accuracy programmers must adhere to in the production of programming languages ultimately penetrates to the use of technology.

The rigidity inherent to the production of programming languages tends to be most keenly felt by the computer novice. The path the novice embarks on when learning how to navigate soft and hardware is essentially a very narrow one, little leeway is granted for deviation. The rather unforgiving nature that programming languages lend to computer technology is the reason why computer technology can be so frustrating to learn. The technology savvy individual has been trained to adhere to the inflexible rules of technology. The programming languages underlying technology inform not only the nature of software and computer programs but, more importantly, the uses of technology, thus to some degree the nature of the writing process. The effects on language of the tools employed in the writing process tend to be as varied as they are complex.

When it comes to education, computer technology does more than introduce the languages that lie at the heart of technology’s functionality. Technology introduces also the practices associated with programming languages to the classrooms of which computers and writing are part. For example, programming languages demand of their authors an unprecedented degree of precision. Not coincidentally has the rigor of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory been invoked by a series of language scholars who in their language and technology-centered discussions address programming languages. A correlation exists between Chomsky’s approach to grammatical description and the nature of programming languages, in both, precision and mathematical rigor is of the essence. On the other hand, and quite in contrast to the augmented demand for precision, programming languages have also led to some rather unorthodox writing practices.



Unorthodox writing practices

In Language and the Internet, David Crystal examines whether relaxed e-mail standards will forebode the end of literacy and spelling as we know it (Crystal, 2001). Writing with the use of a computer, keyboard and software has transformed the process of writing. Crystal is among the first to explore the mark that a technology such as the Internet is leaving on language and explains, "A popular method for creating Internet neologisms is to combine two separate words to make a new word or compound" [ 3]. Crystal counts the following examples among others: Shareware, Webcam, Usenet, EcoNet, PeaceNet, and HotBot, and demonstrates that, while uncommon or unacceptable elsewhere, the rules of capitalization, abbreviation, and graphology have been widely ignored or changed in virtual arenas such as chatgroups and e-mail. In his discussion, Crystal only peripherally considers that capitalization, the creation of compounds, and the use of capital letters within a compound are occurrences frequently encountered in the programming languages that facilitate technologies such as the Internet. For example, when programming, a command that specifies an attribute ("set attribute") may actually be abbreviated into a compound that reads as setAttr [ 4]. Another example, the case of a friendly gesture frequently encountered in virtual communication, will further aid in explaining how programming languages have come to inform the practice of natural languages.

Smiley faces are relatively new in writing but frequently encountered in online communication. In e-mail, usage of symbols such as the following are common:

hi :)) you know what i mean ;) good luck :-)

Crystal notes that written language has always been ambiguous in its omission of facial expression and ponders why prior no one had ever introduced smiley faces in writing. Whereas Crystal speculates that the occurrence of smiley faces online must be related to the immediacy of Net interaction (Crystal, 2001), I would like to suggest that it is the syntax of programming languages that resonates in the practice of language, online and beyond. Writing practices in programming languages inadvertently seep into the production of natural language on the screen. By way of comparison to the examples of facial expressions above, consider, for instance, the usage of symbols in the following excerpt from a piece of writing in C++:

void reset (T* ptr=0) throw() {
if (ap != ptr) {
delete ap;
ap = ptr;

Programming languages often consist of a seemingly random usage of parenthesis, brackets, asterisks, slashes, colons and semi-colons. These symbols are powerful administrators, integral components to the syntax of programming languages. Practices common in programming languages have been adapted for communication in natural languages; an adaptation process that was by all probability a fluid one. Conceivably, when a programmer switched from the writing of programming languages to e-mail correspondence, some of the habits and practices carried over from one language arena to another. Writing styles formerly deemed unorthodox over time were adapted by non-programmers and eventually spread.

There is certainly no proof that facial expressions have made their way into the production of natural languages in the way suggested here. Except that typewriters could have led to the creation and promotion of the typographic smile — but they did not. Perhaps most importantly, the similarities between programming languages and new writing practices, particularly the unusual usage of symbols, are striking. Consciously or not, the authors of programming languages inform our linguistic future.

One last example, the case of hypertext, will serve as an illustration for how programming languages have come to inform the practice of language.



The case of hypertext

As the Internet has moved into the classroom so has a fragmented new text — hypertext. For the purpose of analysis, hypertext has been placed in the context of the works of Derrida, Lacan, Wittgenstein, Habermas and the Frankfurt School of thought, poststructuralism, and Dadaism. How can we understand a poly-linear text in which a multitude of directions is possible, in which meaning increasingly evolves out of context, and in which experience has become fragmented? While the structure of programming languages in many ways is emulated in hypertext, the programming languages at the heart of hypertext have been largely disregarded in the discourse on hypertext. Though seldom considered in this context, programming languages inform the technology used to create hypertext and hypertext in many ways emulates the nature of programming languages.

Hypertext Markup Language, HTML, the language that is the underlying foundation of hypertext [ 5], produces a poly-linear text. The order in which HTML is executed depends on the choices an individual makes on the screen. When clicking on a link in hypertext, the HTML command associated with it will be executed; choosing another link will trigger a different command. HTML is essentially a text that is fragmented; chunks of it are executed at a time, the sequence of which largely depends on the user. For the user interacting with hypertext represents a fragmented experience of narrative that does not provide a sense of closure commonly identified with narrative. The question arises, if the underlying structure of hypertext, HTML, would not be fragmented, would a user’s experience of narrative in hypertext be fragmented? Would narrative as we encounter it in the context of hypertext offer endless loops of choices if the underlying code, HTML, contained a formal beginning and ending in the same way that books do? Arguably, the answer is no as the nature of a language is inevitably reflected in the nature of the product it yields.




Hypertext is but one of the composite language practices that are inspired by the programming languages that sustain computer technology — many of which deserve, if not demand, further analysis in the context of the programming languages that reside at the root of the evolution of these new language practices. Despite the sense of intimidation experienced by many when confronted with these exceedingly technical languages, programming languages are well worth investigation in the context of the classroom. Possibly, if we begin to recognize programming languages for their impact on writing practices, we can begin to understand the impact of technology’s reverberating presence in the classroom. End of article


About the Author

Professor Herbst has extensive knowledge in digital media with a focus on 3D animation. She worked at Disney Interactive where she implemented a training program for digital artists, and at Disney Feature Animation where she was a 3D Technologies Training Specialist. Since 1999 she has been a fulltime Professor at the Department of Computer Graphics and Interactive Media at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York. Her art works have been exhibited internationally. Among her professional activities are publications in the area of media theory and criticism. Professor Herbst holds a BFA in Computer Graphics, and an MFA in Imaging and Digital Arts from the University of Maryland.



1. Logan, 1986, p. 18.

2. McLuhan, 1994, p. 175.

3. Crystal, 2001, p. 82.

4. This example is taken from Maya Embedded Language, MEL, which is part of 3-D animation software by AliasWavefront.

5. Technically, HTML is a scripting language, not a programming language. For the purpose of my discussion, I will not make this distinction but will treat the languages informing technology as one.



David Crystal, 2001. Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robert K. Logan, 1986. The Alphabet Effect: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1986.

Marshall McLuhan, 1994. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

Editorial history

Paper received 7 August 2003; accepted 6 October 2003.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2003, First Monday

Copyright ©2003, Claudia Herbst

Coding the classroom: Technology and the practice of language by Claudia Herbst
First Monday, volume 8, number 11 (November 2003),