Beadwork and vernacular algorithms

@anu1905 Pointed me at the work of Tegan Bristow, in particular her 2021 essay “Towards a vocabulary for vernacular algorithms” in the ZKM publication “Digital Imaginaries: African Positions Beyond the Binary”.

It describes a project of translating beadwork to code, in order to better teach computer science. But it turned out to be more complicated:

In KwaZulu, we found that each unique piece of beadwork had innumerable layers of knowledge coded within it. Each maker had woven their purpose, intuition, and history into the handmade work. These included histories of tribes; personal experiences of love, loss, life, relationships, births, and deaths; encounters with time; political experiences; and the influences of the environment at locations of making. At a distance, many pieces could be categorized as originating from a specific region or from a specific group of people, but close inspection showed that each was imbued with layers of knowledge that were specific to the knowledge of people, place, and time.
This wealth of information was woven together to exceed the mathematical and technical—which in itself is vast and complex. Weaving story and math together, the pieces began offering an understanding of what a comprehensive and inclusive vocabulary for vernacular algorithms could be.

This connects well with Ron Eglash’s alpaca talk on the ‘end of innocence for craft grammars’ to give a warning for us algorithmic patternists… Taking heritage patterns and developing formal written notations of them can be extractive and destructive, if we don’t take proper account of what is not notated. I need to think about this more but feel that this comes down to viewing algorithmic patterns not as applying contemporary technology to capture heritage algorithms, but rather as studying heritage algorithms at large to contemporary technology… If patterns shouldn’t/can’t be separated from culture, then how can the culture of contemporary technology be improved by learning from the culture of heritage technology? The aim should be more sustainable and culturally situated/meaningful creative technologies.

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