> classes > the word made digital, spring 2016

The Word Made Digital
MIT · Spring 2016

Syllabus, 21W.764J/CMS.609J/CMS.844

Instructor: Nick Montfort, nickm at nickm dotcom, coachmontfort on IM, 14N-233
Class meets Wednesdays, 2pm - 5pm, 14E-310
Office hours: Wednesdays, 5pm - 5:30pm and by appointment (in person or via IM)

Short Description

Video games, digital art and literature, online texts, and source code are analyzed in the contexts of history, culture, and computing platforms. Approaches from poetics and computer science are used to understand the non-narrative digital uses of text. Students undertake critical writing and creative computer projects to encounter digital writing through practice. This involves reading and modifying computer programs, so previous programming experience, although not required, will be helpful. The graduate section includes additional assignments.

Elaborated Description

This course considers the wide spectrum of ways that text, language, and writing have been used in creative digital media, including video games, digital artworks and installations, electronic literature pieces, websites, message boards, the interface to and source code of recreational programs, and other sorts of systems and spaces. The focus is on the many non-narrative uses of text, which include the use of text for the display of information, for visual and lyrical purposes, and as human-legible computer code. The course considers these uses of text within different contexts of computing and upon different computing platforms. Drawing on concepts and approaches from poetics, the material history of texts, and computer science, the course explores how text has been used effectively in digital media and how the use of text relates to the overall goals of digital media creators.

Students interact with and read various creative computer works, supported by critical readings from the Web and printed sources. The understanding of text in digital media is developed through practice, by completing several digital writing projects, some individually and some in groups. The projects in this course involve reading and modifying computer programs. Previous programming experience is not necessary, but students should arrive ready to learn the basics of programming if they do not already know how to program. While there are no prerequisites, some experience with writing, in the form of a previous writing course or in some other form, will be extremely useful.

Graduate students may take this course, with additional assigned work, as CMS.844 for graduate credit. One of the six sections of this course covers material explored in greater depth and more comprehensively in 21W.772 Digital Poetry. Another complement to this course is 21W.765J/21L.489J/CMS.845 Interactive Narrative, which deals with the narrative uses of text (and other media) in digital works and which can be taken at any point relative to this course.


The course serves a wide range of students interested in text and digital media, from artists and creative writers who want to create digital literary works to those interested in online and in-game advertising. The course builds on the CMS/W's extensive undergraduate offerings that relate to digital media, which include Interactive Narrative, Transmedia Storytelling, Communicating with Web-Based Media, and Writing for Videogames.

For Writing majors and minors as well as others who want to take a single course on digital writing, this course offers a good option. For students majoring or minoring in Comparative Media Studies, the course addresses a single aspect of digital media that is pervasive and important to our understanding of media ecology and the uses of digital media in culture. It complements courses that consider video gaming and digital media from visual, cinematic, and spatial perspectives.

About Programs and Papers

Programs are assigned simultaneously with the two papers so that your critical writing can inform your creative programming practice and vice-versa. You may choose to do the two assignments in sequence and in isolation (program first, then paper, or vice-versa), but if you do, you'll miss out on the chance for the paper to positively influence your program. There is no length requirement for programs or papers; they should accomplish the goal of the assignment. There is a brevity requirement, particularly important for programs developed from scratch: The core of your program (the part that satisfies the assignment) should be no more than 200 lines, including comments. Note that programs 1/4 this size or less can be perfectly acceptable. If you are modifying an existing program, the use of longer code can be all right.

Bring a Computer to Class!

You can do work for the class using any major OS: GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, or Windows. Bring your own notebook computer or one you borrow from the IS&T Laptop Loaner Program. We will spend time in class just about every week doing some exercises or work on student projects. We meet in a classroom with good audiovisual support and movable chairs to facilitate small group work and class discussions, but we do not have a computer lab with machines for everyone.


Assignments and their due dates are noted. Readings will be linked; all of them will be available on the Web, so there are no books to purchase.

(Simple Combinatorial Text Generation)

1: February 3

Creative computing on text is introduced though a handful of small-scale systems that do something very simple - combining text fragments uniformly at random - but nevertheless produce interesting results.

Assignment due Feb 10. Post your in-class generator exercise somewhere on the Web (using your Athena account and Web space at MIT is fine) and send me a link to it. If you want to make a few small revisions, that’s fine, but don’t spend too much time on it. The assignment is just to post it.

2: February 10

Additional provocative text generators:

And some more from

Discussion of platform/language/approach each student will choose for program 0.5.

Program 0.5 assigned, due February 17. Write a very simple text generator that is nevertheless interesting. No previous programming experience is needed; you may modify an existing program and can change only the textual data (leaving the code and parameters the same). Whether you modify a program or write one from scratch, it should do something new with language and computation. Programming languages that would work include BASIC, JavaScript, Java, Perl, Processing, and Python - others would be fine, too. Consult with the instructor if you have any question about which language to use or how to get started.

Paper 1 assigned, due February 24. Write a short critical discussion of a particular system for random text recombination, bringing in some scholarship about combinatorics, randomness, computation, and/or the domain of the system - for instance, in the case of About So Many Things, gender stereotypes. The paper should be long enough to reach and develop some sort of significant insight - to reveal something about the system that is not obvious to begin with.

3: February 17

Discussion of systems being examined in paper 1.

Program 0.5 workshop: Program 0.5 due (for everyone) for discussion in class.

What is a workshop? In a workshop, participants read their writing aloud and demonstrate early versions of systems that they are developing. We pretend that the work offered to us in this way is our own writing or our own in-progress system, and that the the underlying goals and purposes of the author are our goals and purposes, and then we sincerely try to determine how to revise, reimagine, reconceptualize, add to, or cut the text, or modify the system, to better accomplish these purposes. We do not ask the participant to interpret or explain what is being expressed in his or her work — we respond, instead, to the work. Our discussion will be undertaken with complete respect for the writer/developer, the work, and the purposes behind the work, and will not resort to either euphemism or harshness.

Program 1 assigned, due March 2. Revise program 0.5, or rework it, or set off in a new direction based on how that project went.

4: February 24

Meet in 14N-233, The Trope Tank. Digital text viewing & programming on classic computers, including Commodore 64s.

Paper 1 due. Bring it on paper to turn in.

5: March 2

Program 1 (brief!) presentations. Program 1 due for discussion during the first hour of class.

(Textual Transformation)

A suite of popular early computing text transformations, namely Swedish Chef, Jive, Valley Girl, and Pig Latin, are implemented online with C source code. For some context, see how the Swedish Chef deals with dough. He is based on a famous resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Also, the "I speak jive" scene for Airplane and Barbara Billingsley on this scene.

Can some language-transformation systems be inappropriate, offensive, and bad art? “Gizoogle,” a system to “translate pretty much anything on the internet into gangsta slang.” Or, to be more honest, an African-American dialect of English.

Program 1.5 assigned, due Mar 9. Write a program to transform an existing (arbitrary) text in a way that is somehow pleasing and that engages with language and with literary qualities or methods. This can involve classic text-transforming methods, such as n-gram generation based on Markov processes, or rule-based substituions in the tradition of "good old-fashioned AI" or classic systems for amusing text transformation. The programs should be general to English texts, and do not need to be based on particular writing practices (see program 2.5 for that).

6: March 9

Program 1.5 workshop: Program 1.5 due for discussion in class.

Character-based chaining transformations, including the well-known Markov chain, are implemented by CharNG.

A simple expletive infixation program, to give an idea that something can be done with very little - in this case, 25 lines of well-formatted Python. You can find a bibliography about this linguistic phenomenon on Language Log.

A more complex (but still rather simple) example of a general text-transformer, this one to automatically create erasure poetry, The Deletionist.

Program 2 assigned, due Mar 16. Revise program 1.5, or rework it, or set off in a new direction based on how that project went.

7: March 16

Program 2 (brief!) presentations. Program 2 due for discussion during the first hour of class.

Initial examples of "Digital Forms" (relevant to the next program and paper): tweets, Yelp reviews, Amazon reviews, Internet Oracle questions and responses, .plan files in response to "finger." Let's list others...

NO CLASS: March 23 - Spring Break

Note that you have readings to do for next week - but no other assignments. Readings for March 30: "The Oulipo: Constraints and Collaboration," by William Gillespie; Six Selections from the Oulipo.

(Digital Forms & Constrained Writing)

8: March 30

Discussion of readings on the Oulipo. More on the Oulipo, Noulipo, and traditional forms. Discussion of Oulipo readings. Here is a link to the Table of Forms.

We will read from and discuss the following in class:

The questions we'll use as starting points are: What form or constraint is this piece "implementing"? How exactly is it doing that?

Program 2.5 assigned, due April 6. The implementation of an originally non-digital writing procedure, of writing within a set pre-digital form, or of writing using a constraint, such as an Oulipian constraint. You should select an existing formal writing technique of some sort and implement it. You can make a system that is general (works on any source text) or not. You program can either be self-contained, with all the data it needs included within it (as in programs 0.5 & 1), or it can be data-driven and can transform texts (programs 1.5 & 2). The difference for programs 2.5 & 3 is that you are to take existing, documented writing procedures and constraints as starting points.

Paper 2 assigned, due Apr 20. Write a short critical discussion of a particular form of digital writing that traces one or more of its material, formal, explicit, or implicit constraints and explains something about the form in light of those constraints. The form could be popular or unpopular, low-brow or high-brow: Lolcats image macros, quotes, Wikipedia articles, Arts & Letters Daily teasers, Unix man pages, etc. You should characterize the form and the important constraints and reveal at least one non-obvious thing about the form through your analysis.

9: April 6

Program 2.5 workshop: Program 2.5 due for discussion in class.

Program 3 assigned, due Apr 13. Revise program 2.5, or rework it, or set off in a new direction based on how that project went.

10: April 13

Program 3 presentations. Program 3 due (for everyone) for discussion in class.

11: April 20

Paper 2 original due date. Paper 2 will be accepted without penalty if submitted by email before midnight Saturday.

(Interactive Texts)

In-class play and discussion of two “artgames” that engage text specfically and one digital poem I collaborated on:

Program 3.5 assigned, due April 27. Produce an interactive prototype that engages language and computation. It may be a game, may be a multimedia production, may be networked, etc. but in any case should be as simple as possible for its purpose. Program 3.5 should be interactive (this part is new from earlier programs) and demoable, but does not need to be fully tested and ready for arbitrary users. It also does not need to be technically complex; it should be designed to work well given your concept and the nature of the English language.

12: April 27

Program 3.5 workshop: Program 3.5 due for discussion in class.

13: May 4

Program 4 due.

14: May 11

We'll conclude with a collaborative in-class digital writing activity, one that will involve the whole class in a short project.


Official Notices

The WCC at MIT (Writing and Communication Center) offers free one-on-one professional advice from communication experts (MIT lecturers who all have advanced degrees and who are all are published writers). The WCC works with undergraduate students, graduate students and post-docs.

The WCC helps you strategize about all types of academic and professional writing as well as about all aspects of oral presentations (including practicing your presentations & designing slides). No matter what department or discipline you are in, we help you think your way more deeply into your topic, help you strategize to convey your message more effectively to particular audiences, help you polish your style, and help you see new implications in your data, research and ideas. The WCC also helps with everything from understanding genre conventions to analyzing what particular journals require. We also help with all English as Second Language issues, from writing and grammar to pronunciation and conversation practice.

The WCC is located in Kendall Square (E39-115, 55 Hayward Street, around the corner from Rebecca’s Cafe). To register with our online scheduler and to make appointments, go to To access the WCC’s many pages of advice about writing and oral presentations, go to The Center’s core hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; evening hours vary by semester–check the online scheduler for up-to-date hours.