In the autumn, Fine Art Maths Centre will be running a series of talks and workshops designed to demystify some key aspects of the digital world. In the process, we hope to provoke discussion about what might count as “digital literacy” in the present.
It’s a cliché to point out that the present generation has grown up more immersed in digital technology than any before it. That familiarity, though, doesn’t automatically translate into an understanding of its logic or impact. Many technical innovations have made such a perspective harder to acquire, not easier, and lifelong immersion can make it difficult to find a critical distance.
Our project is organised into three “pillars”, aspects of the digital world that are often poorly-understood by non-specialists.
The first pillar is Data. What is data and how does it differ from information? How and where are different kinds of data stored, what do they “look” like and what technologies are used to access them?
The second pillar is Code, a generic term for the languages humans use to give instructions to machines. As well as teaching practical coding skills, we will look at algorithms for searching, ranking, sorting and organising that underlie the digital services we use every day.
The third pillar is Connectedness. A single computer is useful, but the digital revolution has really been made possible by networking many of them together. The largest such network is, of course, the internet.
Our workshops will explore these subjects with practical, hands-on activities. We feel strongly that the last decade has seen a move in consumer technology towards the “black box”, often impossible to open without special tools and designed to be used only in the ways its maker intends. Artists like to break things; in these sessions we’ll open up the black boxes and see what’s inside.
The most obvious thing to start with is an anatomy lesson: literally taking a laptop apart and identifying what it’s made of. But we’ll go further, dismantling databases, network communications and machine learning algorithms to find out how they really work.
It won’t only be destructive, of course. We’ll also learn how to analyse (and visualise) a network using graph theory, how to interrogate a database using SQL, the principles of Object Oriented programming and some very practical sessions on writing a Twitter bot, building a website and geometric techniques useful for computer graphics.
We’ll work with real objects and materials, seeking to understand practically as well as in theory. We hope these sessions will help students open up lines of enquiry and experimentation they can carry forwards in their art practice and also in their thinking about the digital world.