What Platforms Do

In everyday usage, the word **platform** usually means a surface raised above ground level in order to accomplish some task. One such task of platforms is at public events, so that performers or speakers may be seen and heard quite literally above the audience or crowd, and hence the ideas upon which a group founds itself are sometimes called a platform. It made sense, then to extend the metaphor even further within the realm of computing to be “the standards that set the parameters for what a system can and cannot do.” The notion generally refers to the microprocessor at the heart of the computer’s hardware or the operating system which orchestrates interactions between the user and the hardware. In essence, a platform is an agreed upon set of conventions. Within a computing platform, there are agreed upon ways to interact with the kernel — there is, in fact, a term for this: API or “application programming interface.”

In less technological realms, political parties establish platforms, and those who wish to run for public office agree to abide by an agreed upon set of tenets or ideals when allying themselves with one party or another. Using *platform* in this fashion reveals that we live in a world of platforms — the irony of the “platform shooter” within the video game world should not be lost here — if we imagine that platforms are spaces within which we agree to live by a certain set of rules.

Television and cinema are one such platform: though there is room for negotiation on quantity and quality, everyone agrees that images and sound are central to publishing on that platform. If you want to work within that industry, then it’s incumbent on you to learn the basics of good shots — sound, lighting, composition — and how to edit those shots into a montage that conveys your idea. There are further refinements of the platform, depending upon what you want to achieve. If your goal is to produce the next great sitcom or next great Discovery documentary, then you will need to understand and abide by the conventions established within those forms. Please note that none of this precludes innovating within a platform, across platforms, or developing new platforms.

Arguably, the personal computer and the internet have become not only a new platform but also one that can deliver other, older media platforms like television and radio. The innovation it has spawned as a result of not only absorbing those older platforms but also shaking up the conventions within which they operated can easily be seen in the rise of the “podcast.” Formerly, radio programming was bound by clocks, because it went out as a live broadcast or stream and viewers could not tune in later to catch the same program. This meant a viewer had to know when a program began and ended. It became the convention to start programs either on the hour or the half hour, in order to make it easier for viewers to remember when a program aired. That meant a program had to be in increments of half hours, at the very least.

But suppose one didn’t have half an hour of content? Too bad — for the viewer that is — expand it to fit the space. But it turns out that a lot can get done in ten minutes, and the ten-minute podcast is a rather common length. With the rise of personal computers and the internet, immensely powerful forms of data aggregation and analysis as well as communication of syntheses in topic-appropriate media became something within reach of individuals and not the exclusive domain of institutions and industries.

I originally wrote the above as the prelude to a course syllabus for on computing in the humanities. I concluded the syllabus with:

>The goal of this course is to introduce participants to the basic elements of the computing platform: the creation of texts/data and manipulation in order to arrive at new insights, interpretations, and knowledge.

And then I offered up the following units:

**The Command Line.** The humanistic user of any platform should have a reflexive understanding of the very basics of its operations. In the case of the computer, the place to start is the command line. In this unit, we will learn how to: log into the shell, understand and navigate directory hierarchies, create and edit texts using an editor (e.g., Nano, vi, emacs).

**Working with Texts.** After creating and editing texts, we need to be able to search quickly through them for things they have in common in order to discern larger patterns. In this unit, we will: manipulate texts using grep, sed, and other shell programs including the use of options and pipes to control results; work with regular expressions.

**From Texts to Data.** It doesn’t take long before the average writer or scholar has not only a wide variety of texts but also a great umber of them. Keeping such a large number of texts organized and being able to call up relevant results when needed is best achieved by committing information to a database. There are a variety of database options, free ones even, but the emergent standard for basic tasks is MySQL.

**Of Packets and Ports.** The nature of communication. How is information exchanged?

**The Structure of Things.** There are a confusing array of MLs out there. The two most common are HTML and XML, but their approach to describing data and documents is different enough that we need to spend some time talking about different needs and approaches. In this unit we will explore the differences between document structure (HTML) and information structure (XML).

**Outputs.** None of our research and productivity means much if the data we have collected, the information we have developed, and the knowledge we have created isn’t made accessible and/or public.