UCL Anthropology


Experiments at the borders of computational cultures

Programming languages make and remake, represent and organize, enact but also confuse relationships that computer systems and their designers entertain with social worlds. Yet, programming languages are mostly understood and practiced in terms of their utilitarian, formal and, ultimately, deterministic aspects within well-defined and narrow scopes to solve problems computationally.

In this series of conversations, we asked professional programmers, artists, anthropologists, and media scholars to explore the sociocultural and aesthetic limits of programming languages and computational media. As code emerges out of a social and machinic context, shaped and constrained by historical, sociocultural, and computational orders, the workshop participants reflect on the boundaries of computational cultures at the limits of programming languages. The result is a brilliant set of reflections that will pave the way towards a comprehensive view of the world of computing, one in which humanities scholars and computer scientists can engage beyond the ontological divides between the social and the technical.


  • Gui Heurich (UCL Anthropology)
  • Luis Felipe R. Murillo (University of Notre Dame)


  • The Leverhulme Trust
  • University of Notre Dame, Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA)
  • University College London, Centre for Digital Anthropology (UCL)


Each presentation is comprised of an initial 15-20min talk that introduces a topic concerning alternatives to hegemonic computing cultures and projects. A Q&A session ensues. Given that each talk was recorded individually, there isn’t a particular order to follow. Please, muse through the list below, watch, and enjoy!

Jon Corbett on “Indigenous Programming”

What does computing looks like from indigenous perspectives? Jon responds to this question through his artistic and technical practice to implement a programming language that uses Cree language as code for computing.

Jon is a métis computational media artist and professional computer programmer who infuses his knowledge of programming with his Indigenous heritage and beadwork practice. Jon's website.

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Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal on “Programming Mythologies”

What can we learn about pervasive, mythic symbols in computing through the unearthing the archives of early network computing? Ranjodh takes us on an exploration of the “Story of Mel,” a detective tale that describes the coding heroics of a legendary programmer named Mel, who battles professional and corporate considerations as they brush against his own ethical concerns while he writes a code that no one can understand. 

Ranjodh is Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame, where he also makes video-games and other digital projects as part of this exploration of the many facets of computational media. You can learn more about his work on his website.

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Chris Seaton on “Compilers and Soups”

What is the problem, technically speaking, with so-called “context-free,” formal languages? Chris engages this question through his efforts in reimagining and implementing a Ruby compiler that allows for the visualization of the flow of execution at a lower-level—while maintaining human readbility for interpreting the interpretation that compilers make of instructions and logical constructs of high-level programming languages.

Chris is a Senior Staff Engineer at Shopify, where he works on TruffleRuby—a highly optimized Ruby compiler. He also maintains the Ruby bibliography, which is a list of academic writings on the Ruby programming language. You can find more about his work in his personal website.

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Daniel Temkin on “Esoteric Programming Languages”

What if programming languages could also be expressive, implosive, ilogical, and performative? What if they could serve, at once, as code and media of communication just like “natural” and historical languages? This is exactly the experimental, tentatively brilliant, and anti-utilitarian terrain that Daniel takes us through his work on exoteric languages, languages that fundamentally challenge the long tradition in formal, structured programming.

Daniel makes photography, programming languages, net art, and paintings examining the clash between systemic logic and human irrationality. His award-winning blog “esoteric.codes” documents the history of programming languages as an art form. You can learn about his work on his website.

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Sareeta Amrute on “Race, Caste, and Computation”

What are the implications of computing for those who are not allowed to participate in its design, implementation, and deployment?  What kinds of erasures of historical, economic, political, and ethnic are produced, reproduced, and amplified through computation and automation? Sareeta discusses with us the role that social movements have played in challenging forms of representation on and offline that promote this erasures: by discussing the new forms of erasure in AI applications, the author provides new ways of seeing by cutting through the hype of digital automation.

Sareeta is an anthropologist exploring data, race, caste, and capitalism in global South Asia, Europe, and the United States. As an Affiliate Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, she currently teaches about labor and race in tech worlds and about science and technology in South Asia. You can read all about her research on computing and politics on her website.

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Hannah Knox on “The Language of Climate Data”

Climate modeling, turns out, is much more than the crafty combination of statistical modeling with ever increasing amounts of observations about environmental metrics. In her anthropology of climate modeling, Hannah show us how models communicate in very specific ways as they allow and disallow specific forms of interpretation of the climate crisis. How models come to exert this power in the public debates about our future on the planet is what we learn from her crucial work on anthropology of computing.

Hannah is Professor of Anthropology at University College London. She currently studies the politics of energy and climate change in a project that follows the pursuit of carbon reduction strategies by a network of scientists, activists and local authority officers in Manchester, UK. You can learn more about her work on this and related subjects on her website.

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Ron Eglash on “Cybernetics, ethnomathematics, and computation”

What are the limits of the modernist and post-moderninst predicaments in understanding code? Ron takes us on a journey that connects code to language, music, and cybernetics. Starting off with a discussion on the arbritrariness of code, he explores waveforms and analog computation, self-organizing systems and fractality. 

Ron is Professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information. He explores the histories and futures of Information Technology as well as the multiple relationships between ethnomathematics, programming, cybernetics, and and society.

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Chris Ball on “The Linguistic Limits of the Digital”

What if computation was based on a different approach to language? Chris moves away from the traditional way of looking at computation through a Chomskyan lens to explore the influence of Roman Jakobson and his intelectual impact.

Chris is Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame. His research has explored topics such as discourse and interaction, cultural symbolism, and the politics of communication, always focusing on the role of communication in sociocultural context.

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Workshop organizers