Engineered Opacity and Illegible Interfaces in Ted Warnell's CODE STORY

2:00 PM, Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 (1 hour 15 minutes)
Ted Warnell’s 2005 digital code portrait project CODE STORY generates its material from a play of interface design and operational opacity. Beginning with digital photos of various friends and fellow writers, Warnell opens these photos in a text editor, generating non-semantic UTF-8 encoded text via the editor’s misinterpretation of the data in the image file. Warnell shapes this error text into new concrete poetic forms, inserting the name of the portrait’s subject throughout the redesigned text, and uses it as the base for two different types of code portraits: the first a dynamic Web page scripted to produce new versions of a portrait with each successive refresh; and the second a static GIF image of the first used to advertise prints of the code portraits sold through the project website. In effect, the operations which generate the poetic interface are made visible as interface through their engineered failure. In a perfect world, a UTF-8 encoding operation would simply result in clear semantic text, carrying no trace of the process by which said text is generated.
I argue that the poetic output of Warnell’s project represents an engagement with what Alexander Galloway terms the “computational decision,” the decision to structure symbolic representation in terms of function and data. For Galloway, each step of the computational decision entails its successive step: the decision to pursue symbolic representation (the rendering of data) necessitates granting a structure to that data to make it legible and operable (information), which necessitates making decisions regarding what kinds of operations will be performed on the data, what the result of said operation will tell a user about the data, and what types of data are more important for a given operation than others (“there are two kinds of information: functions and (mere) data”). Warnell’s use of UTF-8 error text as the base of his digital code portraits is his way of exposing this process at the level of the interface.
What this creates for the reader of these digital code portraits is what Johanna Drucker would term a “critical zone that constitutes user experience,” a zone of relation that brings a reader into contact with the obfuscated processes generating the poetic interface. I argue that the deliberately generated illegibility of CODE STORY’s poetic interface constitutes an investigation into the nature of encapsulation, the engineered division between the representation of a function’s output (a declaration) and the actual operations that produces said output (its implementation). While encapsulation usually refers to the obfuscation of the latter in favor of the former, Warnell’s project inverts and collapses the two categories, generating a representation of the function’s output that also provides insight into the nature of its operations. What this generates is an interface that affords inquiries into how its design and obfuscatory capabilities evoke a logic of computation (in David Golumbia’s sense of the term) that not only affects how a digital object is constructed, but the habits directing the user’s engagement with the interface and digital cultural object as well.
University of California
PhD Student