A difficult relationship between algorithms and code

As algorithms gain their prominence in our daily lives and start to affect us to a degree still unknown to many, we should start seeking to understand them a little bit better by drawing on the history, social relevance, and definition of the algorithm itself.

First of all, algorithms are not code. They are two separated yet well acquainted entities in the way that one completes the other. “Algorithms are a finite number of calculations or instructions that, when implemented, will yield a result.” Code is the practical implementation of algorithms, described as set of instruction for a computer delivered via the use of specific programming languages.¹

It is important to remember that an algorithm does not live only within the environment of Computer Science but is firstly a set of mathematical operations. One can think of algorithms as step-by-step formal instructions to solve a problem that are only abstract until implemented on the machine. As suggested by Andrew Goffey in the chapter “Algorithms” on M. Fuller’ Software Studies, we can interpret algorithms as if they were sentences (term firstly used by Michel Foucault) in a language — one which does not cohere with the idea that words can’t do things. A language that is self-sufficient and can transversally communicate with itself without the need of actual “speakers” if engineered to do so.²

Languages base their existence on two basic delivery methods, speech and writing (memorisation being a result of the formers). However, we can see the power of speech diminishing when, in society, “the volume of knowledge quickly increased to a point at which there was too much [knowledge] to pass in the form of dialogue”³. To reason about the nature of the very first algorithm known in history — the instructions for factorisation and finding square roots developed by Babylonians in 1600 BC — we need to imagine dealing with the volume of congested information required to be processed to get the job done. To tackle this issue of “big data” it became crucial to develop written rules and instructions aimed at managing such “ill-defined network of actions upon actions”⁴.

Later in history, Turing’s abstract mechanical machine condensed the logic of virtually any possible algorithm into bits on an infinite strip of tape. Here the algorithm, while occupying a crucial role in the computing process, becomes nothing but a set of data fed into the machine to yield a result. But even a cardinal concept like that of the Universal Turing Machine assumes a degree of abstraction in that it supposes a precise set of inputs (1, 0, and Blank) and outputs (move tape left, move tape right, go back to the beginning state, etc.). Without such structure of data the algorithm is broken.

“Although computer scientists reason about algorithms independently of data structures, the one is pretty near useless without the other. In other words the distinction between the two is formal.” (A. Goffey, 2008)

In a sense, we need algorithms to be broken, “machines to break down and systems to be hacked”⁵ because unintended side-effects are the foundation stone for most creative applications known to us today. I believe the study of algorithms needs to escape the shadow of code, and the much worshipped process of learning to code. This means taking a step back to find the patterns that connect data, before even writing a single line of code.


1–3. Horan, C. (2017). The future is algorithms, not code. [Blog] Hacker Noon. Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2017].

2–4–5. Fuller, M. (2008). Software studies. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. (Respectively on pages 17 and 19)

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.



Using JavaScript and HTML to build a collection of Sound Trademarks.

“(h)” is an ongoing collection of sound logos and sonic trademarks built out of a simple idea and a willingness to learn more about coding with CSS and JavaScript. Currently counting just more than 30 elements, the page is designed with interaction at its core. Visitors are given no implicit instructions on how to navigate the work because of its practical immediacy: hovering over the text — or clicking on it when on mobile — will highlight the name of a brand/company/organisation and play the audio sample of its relative sound trademark.

Possibly, over the next few months more content will be added. Some other features currently under development are:

  • A shuffle function that randomises the order of the words each time the page is reloaded.
  • Cross-fades between sounds.
  • A search feature.

UPDATES: Due to server issues, this project is now discommended and cannot be accessed anymore.

Here you can take a look at the HTML behind (h) — it includes JavaScript functions to play and stop audio, basic CSS styling, and HTML5 <audio> elements (thanks to instaudio for the free hosting):

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.



ASCII art is fun

Filling the blanks with character(s).

Screenshot from “whorunow”, ASCII piece inspired by JODI

The American Standard Code for Information Exchange, abbreviated with ASCII, was designed in 1963 to be used with teletypes. A few years later became the Standard Code for Information Exchange for all computers in the United States. Although new character encoding schemes — such as Unicode, ISO/IEC 2022, or Mac Os Roman — have since been introduced, ASCII still remains an internationally accepted character code for the interchange of text in the electronic domain.

When did ASCII become art

ASCII artworks are probably something we associate with less-known internet forums and obscure Read_me files. Often used to refer to all text-based visual art, “ASCII art is a graphic design technique that uses computers for presentation and consists of pictures pieced together from the […] characters defined by the ASCII Standard”(Wikipedia).

Since its early uses, when printers and emails still lacked graphics abilities, ASCII art has gone a long way. Today, the aim of artists like Andreas Freise at is to collect and catalogue a number of text-based visual works which have never before experienced public recognition . ASCII artists have not yet made it to physical art galleries because of a profound connection to the net as original exhibit space. In addition, due to ASCII’s easily editable nature, the artist signature gets often lost in the way, which makes it difficult to get to know the people behind the canvas.

My attempt at ASCII art

I approached the ideas behind an ASCII artwork from a contrasting direction to most net artists. While text-based pictures are made to be seen from a distance because of the object they represent, we rarely appreciate ASCII in detail. With whorunow, I wanted to draw the user’s attention to the shapes of symbols and letters — which more than often are typed using a monospaced font that retains its space between characters such as Courier New — as an homage to both typography and digital designers.

First step to creating my own ASCII piece was processing a screenshot of my Facebook profile through Picascii. Tools like the this let users upload their pictures and then automatically convert pixels to ASCII characters through recognition of luminosity and pattern complexity in an image. The resulting text-based image can be saved as .txt file for further editing.

Here, I used my Facebook profile as a canvas to represent people’s image of their online identity: a mirrored version of their persona in a constantly changing state, unconsciously reflecting an inborn search for new interactions.

Second step was creating an HTML page where to link my piece. A very simple structure was necessary, with the only addition of the <pre> tag. This tag is useful for formatting text that needs to retain spaces and line breaks as it is written, and it is the key element to display ASCII art correctly on a web page.

Overview of the code behind “whorunow” (continues to the right)

Set the monospaced font to a pretty big value like 12px or more and your ASCII is displayed as if it is being zoomed in (mobile browsing may vary, especially on iPad), letting you move around the page in any direction and actively explore the artwork. Key element to this piece is the addition of text, difficult to spot amongst the myriad of characters on the page. I believe it makes the experience engrossing, as people will scroll through the canvas in search of something, that may or may not be there.

Take a look around whorunow here.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.