Ars Electronica 2003
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Some Code to Die for
On the Birth of the Free Software Movement in 1887

'Leo Findeisen Leo Findeisen

„It could be art’s function to show that in the dimension of the possible, order is possible.“(1)

Old Code and New Code
The following thoughts manifest in a code, letter by letter, syllable by syllable, and are then printed and thus materially stored as something which, for the sake of simplification, is categorized here as Old Code—the English. “Old Codes” go back approximately 7000 years (2) and are usually called “natural languages” or “human languages.” These include all
languages which support the coherency of social superstructures such as religions, ideologies or nations, and are found at all points in history. They are manifested each day in innumerable posters, school books and web pages, they resonate in larynxes and in the space between two faces: the interface of the Old Codes. (3) But in terms of a media history that is interested in codes related to language, we are in the year 2003, and amidst a new burst of development. The dynamics of this development are hard to reconstruct for a majority of us because they are quite untouched by most of what we used to understand as the laws of “culture” and “nature.” These new developments are the programming languages which I shall call New Codes. These New Codes are, like all language codes, closed systems of semiotic elements. The texts which are formulated in these languages, or program , are performative strings of signifiers that keep the alliance of mathematical theories and electromagnetic practices on course, they are the literature of information society. The New Codes are responsible for the inter-communication of technical interfaces. Remarkably, this term not only denotes that which is facing us (what is on the screen), but also devices such as the mouse or the joystick, as well as box-shaped hardware or even separate levels in a New Code. (4) And it is an open secret that in the technical underground of computers, not on the screen but de-facing us, one speaks Java and Javascript rather than Zulu, not Kanton but Tcl, neither American nor English English, but LISP and AutoLisp, not Hindi, but Pearl and C++, not Portugese, but Python.
New Codes —Qualities create Communities
The average life-spans of the New Codes are comparably short, because the specific functional demands of a New Code—its “environment”—is in a state of permanent flux and change. These changes in a code’s environment are not only induced by wellknown factors such as faster processors or stronger transmission bitrates, or by updates in operating systems. They may also take place, and this is a crucial point to my argument, because of the unexpected arrival of a poet of code who publishes a better New Code, a more sophisticated prototype of a cybernetic language. The aesthetics of this code might be more inspiring to program in than the previous one, it may perform identical commands with fewer lines, or build alliances to mainstream net-applications more skillfully, more reliably and faster. Such a development saves precious time, is more fun and is likely to be used by the more skillfull and sympathetic programmers, and so contribute to the formation of a transnational community of highly specialized coders, the so-called geeks. Only then, as an active codegenerated, code-generating collective are they capable of going the next step, which is to multiply the code’s potentials and applications via the internet, and oversee its chances and dangers in this changeable environment. And even if the members of this collective may say „good night“ to each other in Old Code or New Code, their Chats never seems to sleep. In a world-wide code-community there are always some developers on whom the sun is rising. All members are conscious of the fact, and this is obviously a historical novum, that their global, self-reliant and horizontally organised code Task Force in which they know each other, meet each other and collaborate with one another, was constituted, at the beginning, by a code, and the hope for its successful elaboration and global dissemination. A recent example of such a New Code is the language Python, invented by the Dutch mathematician and computer scientist Guido van Rossum, which has been publicly developed over the last 10 years. The code can be found at www.python.org, itself web site of a language-oriented community of developers. It is no coincidence that this community is digitally hosted by the Dutch net-culture server xs4all („Access for all“) and that the language is recommended by the team at Google. Building upon Python, other communities like www.zope.orgor www.plone.org followed. In only a few years they have been able to collaborate in writing applications of a highly complex and technically superior nature. The rule which allows for this collaborative construction is as follows: Everything written in Python is generally seen as being under a Public License, and as such it becomes free computer literature. The “Source Code,” the “digital DNS” of the programming language, is no secret and its author, though fully acknowledged as such, does not claim any copyright.
Two missing links at the end of the 19th Century
Yet as suggestive as this juxtaposition of the respective effects and functional environments of Old Code and New Code might seem, it is the main thesis of this paper to draw attention to two complexes of phenomena that serve as missing links between them. Meanwhile, it has become possible to discern these two complexes of phenomena that are unprecedented and as yet unrepeated in the history of media and communication. The following will thus thematize the invention, the socio-cultural implementation and the global development of planned languages as they emerged first in Western and then in Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century. The fact that the main language-, semiotic- and media-theories of the 20th Century have almost entirely neglected them provides an interesting starting point for future research. (5)
Volapük The first global manifestation of a community generated by a New Code
The first developer that experienced a world-wide dissemination of his New Code was a German Roman-Catholic priest, Johann Martin Schleyer from Konstanz in Baden. Not long after developing his “World Alphabet,” merely a new compilation of letters, Mr. Schleyer had an apparition of his God in a dream telling him to go on with the good work and to let the alphabet evolve into a full world language. Schleyer, who was said to command 50 languages, was obedient to the word and soon had his Volapük ready. (6) The name of his new language pointed to his decision to follow the phonetics of English. Users should still recognize the term “World” in “vol” and the term “speak” in “pük,” which together make Worldspeak – Weltsprache – Volapük. In 1879, 8 years after the end of the Franco-Prussian war, he published his textbook. From its cover it looked like a common school book for languages, but it invoked an unforeseen chain-reaction. Only 10 years later, this New Code had created a community of 283 Volapük-Clubs across Europe, America and Australia. They were connected by periodicals, organized interface-lessons, and their students graduated with diplomas. This geography of dissemination was an immediate result of Schleyer’s opportunistic decision to rely on the global reach of the English language, and its limits–in Asia one was not really understanding this form of invitation. Nevertheless, the entire number of those involved in this first global linguistic turn is assumed to have been more than 100.000 (7) – a success of implementation. But the further development of this collective directly failed because of the father himself. Bugs in the architecture of Schleyer’s prototype gave the final blow to the future success of his New Code. For example, a certain Mr. Karl Lenze, the first diploma-holder and teacher of Volapük, was a man talented in theoretical mathematics. Elaborating on a bug-report protocol, he calculated that the code had „no less that 505 440 unprecise inflections of verbs, which are directly caused by the author“. (8) Consequently, „numerous simplifications, restructurings, re-organisatons and heretical derivate versions“ (9) were produced synchronically and transcontinentally, uncontrollable by the author and destroying the necessary consistency of the code. Schleyer, already known to be extremely vain and patriarchal in character, travelled widely attempting to confront all the derivative versions he could get hold of with his authoritative and original version. Soon, all the do-it-yourself co-authors stopped their cheeky improvements, and ceased enjoying their language-games in Volapük. After their long lasting enthusiasm the question had arisen, for the perfection of whose world exactly one had spent so much effort …? And voilà, the first community exclusively generated by a New Code in Modern Times (or, to be even more precise, in the entire history of culture) had, in three decades, dissolved into a frustrated silence. “From Heaven, through the world, to Hell!” (J.W. von Goethe). Some of this initial community had, however, accustomed themselves to the luxury of a potentially world-wide circle of friends, and after examining their options, changed systems: Possibly to the Langue Universelle of Menet (1886), or the Bopal of Max (1887), the Spelin of
Bauer (1886), the Dil of Flieweger (1893), the Balta of Dormoy (1893) or the Weltparl of Arnim (1896). (10) These different codes not only gradually weakened the dissemination of Volapük, but also their own respective dissemination in relation to one another. The reason for this, to put it bluntly, in that in the long run there can only be one international language—as there is today with English, a fabulous Old Code which as such cannot be blamed for leaving a bitter aftertaste on a growing number of tongues these days.
Esperanto –A Code for all and none
During these years, however, another code-poet and his New Code appeared: Ludwig L. Zamenhof from Bialystok, today in the East of Poland, then in Lithuania under the administration of the Russian Empire. Very early, this talented boy had discovered his love for languages, such as the ancient languages, or the Russian language. But being constantly confronted by various animosities between speakers of the Old Codes, between Polish, Jewish, Russian, White Russian and German for example, he developed while still in his teens a “lingwe universala,” a “universal language.” At first, however, he decided to “hide his work from everyone,” “foreseeing nothing but shame and ridicule.” (11) Zamenhof elaborated on his invention for another 15 years, like a Swiss watch maker, highly concerned with a pleasing sound, fine-tuning some of the strengths of its predecessor Volapük (12) and testing its expressive qualities by translating some of the most established authors of world literature into his New Code. He had observed in the development and flaws of the Volapük-Movement that even a strong prototype had to be tested and optimized by the continual practise of many speakers in many countries in order to stay „alive“. That means that in order to survive, his New Code had to exist in the interface-space of the Old Codes. One had thus to prepare for the emergence of a somehow collective but nevertheless moderated work on aspects like applicability or performance, in which individuals could guide themselves without any centralized organ of control, first of all without “the creator” or “the author.” All had to, by free will, obey by themselves the Kantian Imperative of Coders: Always alter elements of a New Code only in such a manner that the maxim of your alteration favours a structure of world-wide communication. In other words: Language systems belong to the public sphere, so try not to modify at all, and if you modify, then rather a little than a lot, and only after asking for feedback. Never ever publish a derivative version! In 1887, Zamenhof finally went public. His father, working as a censor at the time, played down his son’s work as a „harmless couriosity“ (13) to a Russian colleague and thus its printing was permitted. In addition, Zamenhof inserted a text of three lines at the very beginning of the manual, that can not only be interpreted as a literary document in the context of the widely discussed theme of the „death of the author“, but also as the foundational act of the Free Software- Movement: „An international language should be, as any national one is, be a common possession, which is why the author is here resigning for all time his personal rights over it.“ (14) Thus, Zamenhof’s code was not only published, it was also and at the same time actively liberated for further public elaboration and collaboration. In the beginning, the New Code entailed only a minimal grammar, 927 roots and some exemplary texts, allowing it to evolve in the “community.” From the last pages of the manual the readers could also cut out coupons for subscription, and distribute them to their circle of friends, who could sign them and send them back to Zamenhof’s personal address . Thus, the readers and their friends could document their interest in the language and „promise“ to learn it when 10.000.000 others also expressed their interest in the same way. The community was thus first prefigured as an imaginery assembly of adresses in the minds of the individuals, (15) and secondly, was actualized in documentation at Zamenhof’s private home, and finally, as a third step to come, was to be realized on a global scale. This reflects an autopoietic figure of development, today a form that typically arises in communication when one is dealing with a high number of interdependent potentialities. The coupons were to function like our contemporary Newsletters offered on the Internet, except that the possibility to unsubscribe was not
a technical option at the time. (16) Obviously, the strategy failed, as in the following two years only 1000 Coupons were returned—but that did not stop the New Code spreading. First in Russia, then in France and the rest of Western Europe „followers“of the New Code were making contact with each other. They managed the step from reading the code to using it in conversation and could thus initiate the first interfacetests. From these community members, Zamenhof was sent numerous ideas, contributions, and criticisms of his code. Yet he was serious about wanting to step back from his authors role: He immediately asked others to set up a commission that should moderate the growth of the language, but he would have to wait for another 18 years to have this burden taken off his shoulders. (17) In Boulogne-sur-Mer, near the city of Calais in France, the first Esperanto- Congress was organized in August 1905 and 688 visitors from 20 Countries communicated for a week using only their New Code. The french mathematician Louis Coutourat reported in a letter: “ ... not only have they all understood each other, (...) but as well the differences in articulation (dialect) were insignificant and did not at all disturb. Most of the time one could not even guess the nationality of ones partner in dialog.” (18) A complex and successful test of a prototyp like this was something that Johann Martin Schleyer never experienced, and no code-poet since is likely to. At the same conference the community agreed on a “Fundamento” of the Code, in order to fire-wall it againstderivates. This consisted of 16 rules of grammar, 2644 roots for words and a corpus of text as a language model. And indeed, only two years later a highly aggressive derivate called Ido was published, but its community stumbled over their own derivates and conflicts, similar to Volapük. Looking back today, the New Code called Esperanto has achieved a special position in the family of constructed languages. It is the only one, whose community developed it into a full cultural language. It can now be applied to all walks of life, its dictionaries contain over 20.000 standardized roots, and the next World-Conferences will be staged in Peking (2004) and Vilnius, Lithuania (2005).
Some Code to Die for—What is the message of this medium?
The modern theory of linguistics gives us other categories than those used so far. In Noam Chomsky’s generative transformational grammar for example, this New Code would be classified as a “possible natural language” as it is using the same generative mechanisms as other Old Codes, only in a stricter manner. Esperanto would thus be neither a New Code nor a programming language. Nevertheless, Ludwig Zamenhof deserves the Golden Nica, in the category for “Most successful Hack of Old Codes since the historical Pentecost.” In this way he intervened,— as he was highly aware—, at the core of the power dispositives of the religious, pseudo-religious and post-religious phantasms of the Modern, the high voltage area of cultural “production.” History proved in a cruel way then, that Zamenhof’s father, who described the manual as a “harmless curiousity”, could not have been more mistaken. The New Code of his son not only resulted in happy, travelling, reading and marrying users—but these users were also imprisoned, tortured and killed, especially under the dictatorships of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Their new, neutralized communicative competence was obviously a strong threat to these powers, National Socialism and Sowjet Communism, who by this time had taken the respective Old Codes, German and Russian, hostage of their sense of mission. (19) Before the very eyes of our contemporary authors and writers of New Code for technical interfaces, (the term Hacker has become somewhat of an anachronistic touch), a second front has manifested in the last decades, and the conflict about the codes of tomorrow and the culture adequate to developing them is now emerging. An important contribution has been made by Vilém Flusser, in various aspects an invisible twin of Zamenhof, with his maxim: from
subject to project
. (20) It is of vital interest for our future societies that this second Clash of Code-Cultures is made more and more understood by the public in the years to come, the mainstream will appreciate it. In our more and more differenciated technical worlds and environments contact to those for whom one might have initiated a code-project is mediated to a very high degree. The manifold shiftings, partitions and juxtapositions of problems that the members of a contemporary code-community have to deal with (strong nerves are an advantage here), can be visited and studied in detail at http://www.gnu.org/people/people.html. There an author of a prototype for a free operation system, Richard Stallman, explains his motivation (http://www.gnu.org/ gnu/thegnuproject.html.) „The feedback of technical dimensions provokes the human intelligence to qualify for the tasks of being an engineer on spaceship earth.“ (21) If one is, on the other side, confronted with the task of understanding why human beings would risk and lose their life for a „foreign“, or „neutral“ language, a new riddle in our Second Modernity (H. Klotz, U. Beck) manifests itself. Some Code to die for—a media theory which doesn’t take its name for granted has an unexpected new theme to ponder. Its first horizon might be sketched here: For the first time, the Medium was actually congruent with its Message.

N. Luhmann, Weltkunst, 38; in: Unbeobachtbare Welt, Über Kunst und Architektur, hrsg. von N. Luhmann, F.D. Bunsen und D. Baecker, Bielfeld 1990back

D. Crystal, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 17ff.back

See P. Sloterdijk, “Zwischen Gesichtern, Zum Auftauchen der interfazialen Intimssphäre.” in: Sphären I – Blasen; Frankfurt am Main 1998, 141f .; french: +Sphères I – Bulles+, Paris 2002, 152ff.; spanish: +Esferas I – Burbujas+, Madrid 2003, 85ff.zurück

E.g. the so-called APIs, Application Programming Interfaces, that are providing programmers with a writable surface into a programback

A late exception being U. Eco, Die Suche nach der vollkomenen Sprache, München 1997, v. a. 322ff.; english: The search for the perfect languageback

R. Centassi / H. Masson, L’homme qui a défié Babel, Paris 1995, 68back

Centassi / Masson 68; Eco 324back

Centassi / Masson 103, in der Übersetzung des Autorsback


Eco 324back

U. Lins, Die Gefährliche Sprache, Gerlingen 1988, 16back

Lins 20back

Lins 18fback


See one of the standard works for a media theory of Nationalism: B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, Verso 1991back

Lins 29ff.; Chrystal 354, Centassi 174ff.back


H. Mayer, Das Kind des Esperanto: Briefe Louis Coutourats an Hugo Schuchardt (1901–1914), Wien 2001back

Lins v.a. 90ff. und 215ff.back

See V. Flusser, Vom Subjekt zum Projekt. Menschwerdung, hrsg. von St. Bollmann und E. Flusser, Bensheim und Düsseldorf 1994; see in english: Writings, University of Minnesota Press 2002; The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism; University of Illinois Press 2003back

See P. Sloterdijk, Sphären III – Schäume, Kapitel 1 A, Absolute Inseln, Frankfurt am Main 2003; french: Sphéres I – Ecumes, Paris 2004 back

For further information visit www.paramediamind.org
English translation by Leo Findeisen and Stephen Zepke. / Esperanto translation by Gunnar Fischer.
The author wants to express his gratitude to the staff at the Department of Planned Languages and International Esperanto
Museum, Austrian National Library, Vienna, for their support. All imagery courtesy of the same.