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

10print504This installment of MIT Press series Software Studies has an unusual title, at least for the non-coding population. It is a single line of BASIC that, if the code is executed, prints an infinite string consisting of two characters, selected at random. The last instruction at the end of the program line (GOTO 10) instructs the computer to go back to the beginning of line 10 of the program, execute its instructions, and generate and print out another character based on the algorithm.

Written as a collaborative effort by ten authors, who point out that it is an unusual book “in its focus on a single line of code, an extremely concise BASIC program that is simply called 10 PRINT throughout.”

The authors describe their approach and methodology as follows:

The eponymous program is treated as a distinct cultural artifact, but it also serves as a grain of sand from which entire worlds become visible; as a Rosetta Stone that yields important access to the phenomenon of creative computing and the way computer programs exist in culture.

For those who do not remember the heady Commodore 64 programming days, here’s a simulation of the 10 PRINT code:

The many connections the authors draw between this little piece of software and large, cultural themes are astonishing and–even though not always completely convincing–very stimulating. The authors connect the single line of code to Duchamp’s droppages [Duchamp (1914) : Three Standard Stoppages], to cultural memes like the figure of the maze, and to familiar screensavers. In the process, the authors provide an insightful and stimulating commentary on the evolution of programming languages and the cultural parameters in which this evolution took place.

Geeta Dayal, Slate, comments that the book 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.”

Software studies proposes histories of computational cultures and works with the intellectual resources of computing to develop reflexive thinking about its entanglements and possibilities. It does this both in the scholarly modes of the humanities and social sciences and in the software creation and research modes of computer science, the arts, and design.

All royalties from the sale of this book are being donated to PLAYPOWER, a nonprofit organization that supports affordable, effective, fun learning games. PLAYPOWER uses a radically affordable TV-computer based on the 6502 processor (the same chip that was used in the Commodore 64) as a platform for learning games in the developing world. The book is available directly through MIT Software Studies or take a look at our selection of MIT Software and Digital Humanities titles available through our Amazon Affiliation.

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This article was first published on DIGITALSOULS.COM on Dec.21, 2012.