Inscribed in code: depictions of computational algorithms in twenty-first century fiction

Jaime Harrison

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Abstract

This essay offers an analysis of the representation of algorithms and their cultural consequences in three contemporary novels: Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers (2015), Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY (2017), and Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (2019). It considers how these novels reveal the technical systems which underpin digital culture to open up two key literary aspects of algorithms: that algorithms are inscribed in a form of language with characteristics and limitations distinct from the language in which the authors themselves operate; and that algorithms function through narrative (e.g. the connections between data objects). Two distinct strands of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language are employed to observe how these novels draw distinctions between ‘computer language’ and ‘human language’. Through this, fiction presents itself as a space within digital culture to articulate fuller accounts of identity and subjectivity. And at the same time it has the potential to speak to a knowledgeable reader and encourage them to consider how to address the limitations of a monosemantic technology and construct programmes that are better equipped to model a pluralistic world.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
JournalTextual Practice
Early online date29 Nov 2022
DOIs
Publication statusEarly online date - 29 Nov 2022

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