Origin Stories

Rohit Chopra

I was introduced to the world of MS-DOS, BASIC, and Pascal as a high-school science student in India. I don’t remember too many of the specifics of the high school computer science curriculum, but what has stayed with me is a sense of the elegance of Pascal as a programming language. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that programming is an aesthetic as much as a logical and intellectual activity and that code, correspondingly, can be viewed as a form of expression combining beauty and functionality. After high school, I strayed away from programming, not so much by choice as by circumstance. I opted to purse a degree in the humanities. The Indian educational structure places different kinds of disciplinary learning in silos; as such, there was no place in that structure for me to follow up on my interest in programming.

Close to a decade later, I returned to writing code, when I joined an Internet start-up, rediff.com, in Bombay. I picked up HTML by tinkering around, by trial and error, and by looking at code written by others. My job, strictly, was to conceptualize corporate websites as well as in-house channels on education, health, finance, and develop content for them. However, because of the small workforce and startup-like culture at the firm, one pretty much wound up having to do some of everything: liaising with clients, basic coding, and pitching in at marketing meetings. The source of my motivation to take up HTML was mundane. It was tedious to have to keep asking the programmers to make minor to moderate changes on the sites on which one was working. It just made sense to learn how to code in it.

The opportunity to code in HTML stood me in good stead in graduate school at Emory University. I developed two websites for Ford Foundation funded-initiatives on religion, law, and human rights at Emory Law School–the Islam and Human Rights Fellowship Program site and the initial version of the Future of Shari’a Program site–and managed a couple of other sites. I also developed a website for the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, the department where I did my graduate work.

My research and teaching focus significantly on new media and digital media. I have kept an active interest in Digital Humanities initiatives, though trying to keep up with all that is happening can be a challenge. With a colleague based in the UK, I founded and edited Interjunction, a forum for academics and media practitioners that ran from 2008 to the end of 2009. I am working on another project, “The Digital Archive of Colonial and Postcolonial Violence,” related to my current monograph. I am in the process of thinking through the architecture of the site and the logic of design and content delivery. Finally, I am really looking forward to getting back to coding, exploring the universe of HTML 5 and getting my feet wet with one other language.