Special Topics in Information: Coded Culture: The Rise of Digital Media Platforms


INF2401H — Special Topics in Information: Coded Culture: The Rise of Digital Media Platforms

This course adopts a technical historical perspective as a means to better understand the emergence of the online platform as the increasingly standard fulcrum of digital media dissemination, and, in cases, production. Modern online media platforms connect vast data repositories with web application frameworks that stream both content and interface to end users across a variety of digital devices. We will examine the historical foundations of these myriad technologies, paying attention both to standard-defining innovations, as well as those ideas that got lost along the way. We will look at code in all its forms: character codes, encoding formats, markup languages, and programming languages. We will look at how media software evolved from command-line service to “desktop” studio to cloud-based Web application. We will then creatively engage with this knowledge and design our own platforms. These platform prototypes will be presented and discussed in class.

Computer scientist Alan Kay declared the computer to be “the first metamedium” in 1984, the same year as the release of the first Apple Macintosh computer. Since that time, digital computing devices have seemingly confirmed Kay’s observation by consuming all manner of media production and reception practices. Yet there is nothing fundamental about the “stored program” computer, first realized in the form of the EDVAC in 1949, that would suggest such a versatile role. Instead, such uses had to be invented by human actors, building on the binary logic of digital machines through the “shaping of the invisible”, a phrase Kay borrowed from Leonardo Da Vinci. The essential medium upon which such fictions are shaped is code: code is the mechanism by which bits of transistorized memory are elaborated into the sights and sounds of digital multimedia, as well as the algorithmic constructs that control its production and projection. Code is at once theoretical and pragmatic, reflecting computer science theory but also conforming to best fit configurations in emerging contexts.