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A picture of Nick Montfort

Nick Montfort

Professor of digital media (MIT)

in linux, poet, professor

Who are you, and what do you do?

In terms of my work/vocation, I'm a professor of digital media at MIT, which means teaching, doing scholarship and research, and of course serving on faculty committees. The job also supports my addiction to making computational art and poetry of various sorts, which is very important to me.

Being a teacher, in a broad sense, is important as well. I work to facilitate learning in several ways. I'm a classroom instructor, help develop courses and oversee curriculums, lead workshops, and host class visits to the MIT Trope Tank (one branch of my lab/studio). I've also written a textbook, Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities, published by the MIT Press and now in its second edition, which is available in print and in three free, open access digital formats.

In my practice as a poet and artist, I use computation as my main medium. While I don't claim to be completely absent from my work, it's not mainly about me: I explore the entanglement of computing, language, and culture. To make my creative work coherent with my aims as a teacher, I try to make my creative computing projects accessible, both by presenting them as free/open source software and by writing code clearly. For example, I wrote a simple poetry generator, "Taroko Gorge" which probably hundreds of people, including many new programmers, have modified or remixed in various ways. Many of my recent projects have been computer-generated books, presented in print, including #! (Counterpath, 2014) and most recently Golem (Dead Alive/New Sight, 2021).

Studying creative code and conducting research, involving software development at times and investigations into the material history of text at other times, is also a significant part of my work. And, last but not least, I try to help other people get their work out to various communities, currently by being an editor of three book series and the proprietor of a "micropress" Bad Quarto. I publish some printed matter as part of this latter project, but my role in this press is mainly being the publisher of an online literary magazine, Taper, which consists entirely of short, free/open-source computational poetry.

What hardware do you use?

Let's start with some of the less usual suspects. Recently I've used the NeXTcube I have in the MIT Trope Tank to help a fellow researcher who is doing media archeological work on Mac and Mac-adjacent desktops. I've also written some creative code on a Commodore 64, on a modern-day FPGA implementation of that computer (the Ultimate64), and on an Apple IIc.

For Bad Quarto, I print things on an Adana Eight-Five platen press, dot-matrix printers, and standard consumer laser printers. I make artwork using flat panel displays connected to single-board computers, including the Raspberry Pi Zero.

I have used a variety of notebook computers in recent years. It's a bit wasteful to keep getting new ones, but I hold onto them and use the older ones in exhibiting computational work. I have a system76 computer, a version of the Galago Pro that is no longer in production, that I'll mention because it's a fine machine, this is a Linux-specific company, and they have very good customer service.

And what software?

On the older smartphone I use daily, I run GrapheneOS, a free/open-source operating system that is focused on privacy and runs most Android apps. My phone does not have any Google apps, or Google Play services, even the Google Play Store.

I run Ubuntu on one of the notebook computers I use often, but even more often use Pop_OS!, a distribution from system76 that is based on Ubuntu and that I run on two other machines.

On my virtual host, I run Nextcloud as a file server and to sync calendars, contacts, notes, tasks, and such between my computers and phone. I run my own email server and host my websites, all of it with free/open source software.

So, except for classic/vintage software (things like Applesoft BASIC and Commodore BASIC v2), I pretty much use all free/open source software for actually doing writing and media production and developing my computational art. Of course I have to videoconference with people and I can't always insist that we use Jitsi, nor do I want to seclude myself from online events that use proprietary videoconferencing software. But for instance I write using Visual Studio Code (which I'm using now) and LibreOffice, record using Audacity, use Firefox and a free/open-source fork of Chrome with Google services removed ("Ungoogled Chromium"), and so on.

What would be your dream setup?

Because of my DIY attitude, my interest in investigating computer platforms, and my luck in having a steady job that allows me to equip myself, I feel all right about the reality of my setup.

In some cases, I'd like for hardware and (free) software to work better together. I could remedy that by selecting free & open hardware, so part of my dream would be that such hardware is available in the form factor, with the battery life, etc. that works best for me. What's happening with Linux-specific laptops and notebooks is going in the right direction, though.

While I'm dreaming, the situation with smartphones is much worse. How about a fully open phone like the PinePhone Pro, with headphone jack, that will run GrapheneOS? Alternatively, I could dream that everyone would develop apps for Linux phones as well as for iOS and Android - but that isn't realistic in the near term. Perhaps the following isn't realistic either, but I'd like various Android apps by Amtrak and financial institutions, for instance, to work on GrapheneOS instead of clumsily expecting to identify me by surreptitiously accessing properties of my phone, failing, and then crashing. Generally, having a very usable free/open-source phone would be really great.