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Human Readable Messages

04/06/2012
Rob Myers

Human Readable Messages_[Mezangelle 2003-2011]” is a book published by Traumawien containing almost a decade of Mez Breeze’s “Mezangelle” writings. Mezangelle is hand-crafted text with the aesthetics of computer code or protocols. What marks Mezangelle out is how deep its use of those aesthetics go and how effectively it uses them.

Computer programming languages have their own logic, and it is not captured by holding down the shift key and bashing the top line of the keyboard to add what looks like a cartoon character swearing or random line noise to text. It’s true that programming languages can look incomprehensible to the uninitiated. This Perl code:

y/A-Za-z/a-zA-Z/

will swap the case of lower and upper case English letters. But the conciseness of this notation hides a clear informational structure only in the same way that mathematical or musical notation do.

Likewise the markup language HTML that this article is written in:

<p>looks "<em>gnarly</em>"</p>

and a computer protocol such as email transmission via SMTP:

220 smtp.example.net ESMTP Postfix EHLO someone.example.org 250-smtp.example.net Hello someone.example.org [192.0.2.201] 250-SIZE 14680064 250-PIPELINING

is incomprehensible without reference to detailed technical documents. But all express clear semantic structures and instructions to the computer systems that have been programmed to understand them.

These notations have been created to express data and concepts in structured ways that are possible for computers to work with. They may look typographically arbitrary but they do involve aesthetic choices and historical precedent. They have associations, they have resonances.

We do not usually see the codes involved in our use of computers and the Internet when they function effectively, but they are always there. When they successfully empower or coerce us they become invisible. In the age of social networking, ecommerce, and mobile devices they are pervasive.

What, then, are we to make of Mezangelle? Human written, but intentionally structured in the style of computer code, it recreates the expressive, communicative underpinnings of software syntax rather than simply its surface aesthetics.

To read Mezangelle is to parse it. Parsing in computer software is the process whereby a computer breaks down textual input into smaller and smaller but more and more closely related chunks of meaningful information. Parsing Mezangelle requires the human reader to group and regroup word fragments into shifting webs of meaning. It takes time to do this, and different textual characters and formatting take different amounts of time, adding rhythm and pacing to the meaning of the text.

The history of literary typography, of mathematical notation, and of programming language design has lent a rich range of often contradictory precedents both to software and to writing that draws on its aesthetics. A dot can mean a fraction or a part of an object. A square bracket can instruct a computer to construct a list in memory, to access an element of an array, or to send a message to an object. As can a colon or two, or various arrows. Hashes can indicate comments, identifier numbers, or other entities.

The raw typographic aesthetics of character glyphs spring from their visual form (smooth, straight, long, slanted), size, and relative visual complexity. A full stop or a vertical bar is simpler than a hash or an ampersand. These factors affect how long it takes to perceive them and the effect they have on the eye as we look across them. The glyph-level and code level visual arrangement of code affects the pacing of our reading, building pace and meter. The more semantic aesthetics of the way these glyphs are used to structure code build on and interact with this. And it affects the relations and meanings that we build as we read the text.

Like computer program code, Mezangelle structures its content in order to communicate to and invoke the resources of its parser. Crucially this is a human parser rather than a software one so those resources are aesthetic and cultural. As well as pacing the experience of the text as spoken performance would, these destabilize and expand its meaning as the attention of critical writing does.

The intrusion of quoted plain English text such as an Alan Sondheim piece or an email from a mailing list that have been the inspiration for an answering piece of Mezangelle serves both to show how different Mezangelle is from written English and how effectively it can be part of a conversation.

Here is a line of Mezangelle (broken by the format of this page):

.. my.time: my time: it _c(wh)or(e)por(ous+h)ate_ _experience____he(u)rtz___.] [end]

Read as code, the underscores mean private data and variables, the square brackets mean list construction, message passing, references to individual elements of data structures. The full stops are decimal fractions or references to data or functions that are parts of larger objects. They do not decorate (in the sense of being frivolous), they evoke.

They also semantically structure and pace, allowing reading and re-reading as poetry. Underscores creates distance, brackets group and shift the meaning of words and fragments of words. Addition signs and colons combine concepts and further disrupt the parsing of language as a flat, linear, structure.

Mezangelle is distinct from much historical code poetry in its structural and semantic mastery of the aesthetics of code. It is distinct from concrete poetry in its semantic, destabilizing, temporal rather than merely structural use of typography.

Mezangelle is net art, it is produced and encountered in the environment of the Internet. Mezangelle lives in blogs and on mailing lists. But it does not die on the printed page, far from it. “Human Readable Messages” is typeset in Donald Knuth’s Computer Modern font, a beautifully spindly artifact of the early days of computer typesetting, with the occasional intrusion of Courier-style monospaced teletype/typewriter fonts. This gives the printed text a digital, online feel retaining a genetic link to the environment it originated in.

Mezangelle surfaces and integrates the hidden aesthetics of computer mediated human activity, setting computing and human language in tension and synthesizing them. It expands the expressive possibilities of text and is a form of realism about the conditions in which human reading is currently flourishing. “Human Readable Messages” provides an ideal opportunity to familiarize ourselves with Mezangelle in the depth that it deserves and rewards.

The text of this review is licenced under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 Licence.

"self-defined artist, writer and hacker" – MakeTank

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