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.

10 PRINT wouldn’t be able to build its maze without the “RND” command, the “random” element that makes the maze varied and endlessly interesting. “The RND command acts as the algorithmic heart of 10 PRINT,” the authors write, “its flip-flopping beat powering the construction of the maze.” Artists have, of course, long used randomness and chance to lead them in unexpected directions. John Cage often used the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination system, to make compositional decisions—to help him bypass the prejudices of his own mind. “I use chance operations instead of operating according to my likes and dislikes,” he once explained. “I use my work to change myself and I accept what the chance operations say.” But as much as Cage ceded creative control to the I Ching, the pieces were still unmistakably him. The listener wends his way down the path of Cage’s mazes, drawn into his work, his mythos.

Helpful things can happen when we give up some control. I wrote a book using a deck of “oblique strategies” cards, originally developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975. When I got stuck in the mazes of my own mind while writing the book—which happened fairly often— would draw a card for advice. “Turn it upside down,” the card might instruct. “Use a different color.” Sometimes, I’d rip up a chapter, after drawing a card with potentially disastrous—and freeing—consequences: “Make a sudden, destructive, and unpredictable action. Incorporate.” In a way, the cards became a second author of the text, leading me in odd and often revelatory directions. In 10 PRINT, the randomness introduced by the program makes the program as much of a player in the game as the user.

A random element is important, but repetition is important too. 10 PRINT couldn’t build its maze without the GOTO, which instructs 10 PRINT to keep returning to the beginning, repeating endlessly. A chapter on patterns, grids, and repetition makes the unlikely jump from 10 PRINT to Tony Conrad’s classic experimental film from 1965, The Flicker. Each tiny diagonal line that builds up 10 PRINT’s maze “could be seen as a panel of a film strip,” the authors write. But The Flicker, minimal as it is, has a beginning and an end—while “10 PRINT maintains the same pace, does not vary in any way as it begins, and continues running until interrupted.”

The book touches on modern music and its myriad parallels with 10 PRINT, but the short passages beg for more depth. The composer Steve Reich’s phasing pieces in the ‘60s and ‘70s—in which simple melodic lines overlap, generating a complicated result—gets discussed, but only briefly. The related concept of generative music—“growing” complex pieces of music from simpler sonic seeds, as championed by Eno and others, would have fit in well here. There are literal connections from John Cage to computing; Cage collaborated with the composer Lejaren Hiller in a work called HPSCHD in the late 1960s, which used Fortran code based on the I Ching to generate music. The inventive scores created by many 20th-century composers could provide intriguing fodder for their parallels with computer algorithms. The composer Conlon Nancarrow also deserves a mention; he wrote awe-inspiring pieces for player piano in the mid-20th century that were impossible for a mere human to play, using a system of punches on paper scrolls. There is a strong connection there to the punch cards used by early computers, and to the sets of instructions fed into jacquard looms—topics that the authors do address.

“Like a diary from the forgotten past, computer code is embedded with stories of a program’s making, its purpose, its assumptions,” the authors write. It would be impossible, of course, for the authors to explore every path that 10 PRINT creates. Without ending somewhere, you would be led forever through 10 PRINT’s endlessly beguiling maze. Control-C.

BREAK IN 10

READY.

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10 PRINT CHR$ (205.5 + RND (1)); : GOTO 10 by Nick Monfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Marc C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, Noah Vawter. The MIT Press.

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (Software Studies)

~ Noah Vawter (author) More about this product
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Geeta Dayal is the author of Another Green World, a recent book on Brian Eno. Follow her on Twitter.

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