Inside a Single Line of Code, a Labyrinth

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 30 2012 11:24 PM

BASIC

A single line of code sends readers into a labyrinth.

Code fundamentally shapes how we how we interact with the world. Some of these ways are so subtle as to be barely palpable. The law professor Lawrence Lessig famously propounded the maxim that “code is law,” but code is more than that. Code shapes the way I make a song with a piece of software, and what that song might sound like. Code is embedded in our phones, ATMs, voting machines, buildings, social interactions, culture. Code leads us down mazes, of a sort, in our everyday lives.

10 PRINT CHR$ (205.5 + RND (1)); : GOTO 10, a new book collaboratively written by 10 authors, takes a single line of code—inscribed in the book’s mouthful of a title—and explodes it.

That one line, a seemingly clumsy scrap of BASIC, generates a fascinatingly complicated maze on a Commodore 64. Run the little program on an emulator—or on an actual Commodore 64, if you happen to have one collecting dust in your basement—and a work of art unfolds before your very eyes, as the screen slowly fills up in a mesmerizing fashion. (Run it on another old-school computer, like an Apple II, and you won’t get the same transfixing result, for details that have to do with the Commodore 64’s character set, called PETSCII.) 

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The line of code seems basic, even for BASIC. There aren’t any variables. It uses a GOTO instead of a more elegant loop.  How could something so short and simple generate such a complex result? What can this one line—“10 PRINT,” to use the authors’ shorthand—teach us about software, and culture at large?

The book, which has also been released for free download under a Creative Commons license, unspools 10 PRINT’s strange history and dense web of cultural connections, winding its way through the histories of mazes and labyrinths, grids in modern art, minimalist music and dance, randomness, repetition, textiles, screensavers, and Greek mythology. There are forays into early computer graphics, hacking, Cold War military strategy and Pac-Man. References abound, from the Commodore 64 user’s manual to Roland Barthes’ S/Z. This is a book where Dungeons and Dragons and Abstract Expressionism get equal consideration.

Though 10 PRINT CHR$ (205.5 + RND (1)); : GOTO 10 is occasionally whiplash-inducing in its headlong rush through history, the connections it makes over 294 pages are inspired. One of the most compelling sections of the book discusses the cultural history of mazes, relating 10 PRINT’s maze back to the labyrinth of Knossos, where, according to the great Greek myth, Theseus waged battle with the terrifying Minotaur.

“The Knossos myth is best understood in terms of Theseus’s narrative path through it, not as the space of the labyrinth itself,” the authors write. “This transformation from multicursal, unknowable confusion to a marked and bounded pathway reflects the mastery of any system, from challenging, mysterious, threatening, and deadly to easy, known, mapped, and tamed.” 

The user of 10 PRINT, they write, is more like Daedalus—the architect of the bewildering labyrinth at Knossos—than she is like the conqueror Theseus. 10 PRINT “is a blueprint for a maze, not just a structure or image that appears without any history or trace of its making,” the authors argue. “And at the same time, 10 PRINT itself takes the role of maze creator: the programmer may be the maze’s architect, but the program is its builder.” As the 1980s progressed, more users became familiar with mazes as they appeared in computer games, which reached new levels of complexity. “Would the user be Theseus or Daedalus?” the authors write. “The scientist or the rat? Pac-Man or Zaxxon? And would programming be meditating, dancing, escaping, solving, or architecting a maze?” There are no clear-cut answers, and part of the richness of the maze, and of programming, comes from its mystery.

Mazes and computer games, of course, are highly relevant. Pac-Man is obvious. Dance Dance Revolution is less so. Is Dance Dance Revolution a maze? Mazes and dance, the authors argue, have shared a cosmic link through time immemorial. “It may seem odd to think of Dance Dance Revolution as a maze game,” they write, “but its arrows do show a labyrinthine path that the dancer, standing in place, is supposed to navigate. Missing a step is allowed, but the perfect performance will be as ritualized a motion through space as a Pac-Man pattern.” 

The book moves forward and backward through time in ways that are heady and sometimes disorienting. 10 PRINT is imbued with “spiritual mystery,” the authors write, opening the gates for a discussion of 11th-century French church mazes. An exploration of old English hedge mazes collides headfirst into a discourse on psych-lab maze experiments in the 1950s.

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