Funware: Wilfried Hou Je Bek – The programmer as shaman?

This series of reports on the Software Fun (Funware) symposium held on November 27, 2010 at Baltan Laboratories were commissioned by Baltan and MU.

At the beginning of his talk Wilfried Hou Je Bek admits he is struggling with the idea of software and fun. He starts his talk with passages from William Burroughs, who was once in touch with a mysterious computer from Venus named Control:

[…] in Fulham Road Willy Deiches and Brenda Dunks, two would-be one-were computer operators with IBM who now function of their own (,) have perfected a scrapbook system from newspaper cuttings for predictions and assessments along the lines of Wm’s scrapbooks, but with a built-in 24-hour mathematics of their coordinate points for greater accuracy. They also claimed to be in touch with Control in Venus through IBM Seattle. Questions may be put to Control at 12 shillings a time (it used to be free) and the answers are interesting. Wm has sent in a whole lot and we are waiting for these answers … (Anthony Balch to BG, November 4 1968)…

Q: What is word ?

A: Word is ETC.

W: What does ETC mean ?

A: Electrical time control.

Q: what is virus ?

A: Virus is B.

Q: what is the relation between word and virus ?

A: Power…. ((in: Terry Wilson and Brion Gysin, Brion Gysin: Here To Go (Creation Books, 2001). p. 218))

We do not know much about Control but you could send questions to Control in London. The address belonged to two former employees of IBM, who would write neatly written answers for 12 shilling accompanied with an invoice. They were methodical people. Burroughs said Control was not a computer but a news snippet system. Hou Je Bek notes that if the computer is a social construction, why can’t it be from venus? He expands on his notion of the computer as a social construction with a metaphorical inquiry into software and fun.

Software is fun in the same way as exploring the Amazon rainforest is fun. It’s exciting, you hope to discover something and you take the bugs for granted. Bugs serve a purpose, for example mosquitoes keep us humans out. The bugs serve as a deforrest prevention. In the computer the bug is a good thing, if you would code and it would just work programmers would be able to do bad things.

The Amazonian mythology is about production (the processes of reproduction) and the shadow of the crash (the wrong action can bring down the entire world). It looks at the forest from within and distinctions between man and nature don’t exist. You are part of nature. The world exists of layers and the layers don’t mix. They do, however, interact. This interaction causes disturbences in the balances of the layers. The shaman can fix the illness by traveling the layers. Hou Je Bek states that the shaman should be replaced with the programmer. He describes how the shaman is a misunderstood concept, often associated with the new age softies. However, the power to heal is also the power to kill. If you can fix a computer, you can also kill it.

Monday at work by slworking2
Monday at work by slworking2

When talking about software layers, we can see the rainforrest as a piece of software. Hou Je Bek observes: “who’s to say what’s a computer and laugh about it?” He coins The end of computationalism (based on the end of physics): We should not look at the computer as a fixed “in” but we have to take the programmer and the user into account when thinking about the computer. Software is a social construct and we get lost in the technicalities.

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