What Would You Do
Code is a strange and beautiful thing. It is a piece of human writing intended to be interpreted and executed by machines on the one hand and to elegantly communicate its function and meaning to programmers on the other. Those who are the best at creating it balance the needs of these two seemingly conflicting audiences perfectly. Those of us who love code can get a giddy kind of thrill from its aesthetics. Code can be ever so beautiful. There is this wonderful visual quality to it when it is well designed and properly organized. Just looking at it can be both pleasing and fulfilling, or gutturally flat out revolting. I can look at a painting or watch a film that is poorly made without turning away in disgust. Yet there have been plenty of times after even an initial scan of some code that irks me in its construction that I have become physically agitated and unable to go on.
When I think about it, that is pretty weird. It also tells me that programming is something I do care about deeply, perhaps much more than I thought. Programming is a type of writing that is both communicative and generative. It is a creative act that actually changes the world around it, not just by changing how people live their lives, but it can also literally orchestrate the things around us. In the dawning age nearly every object in our world is programmable and as programmers we can control all aspects of our environment. Much like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we can bend the world to our own will. We can make the broom sweep the floor without us. Programmers are both the architects and the modern artist of the real even if they don’t know it yet. The coder that writes the logic to set prices of foreign currencies one day wakes up the next and realizes he can create his own. The next thing you know you have bitcoin. Coders can not only automate economies, they can create and destroy them over their morning coffee.
It can be a little frightening as well and exciting to step back and examine the power shift that is happening right now. While it is difficult to find many corollaries in history, one can compare it to the early days of the written and printed word. Writing and reading are the fundamental technologies of civilization, second only to language itself. Those who knew how to read and write as late as the turn of the last century had a tremendous advantage over those who did not. In some cases in the Wild West, knowledge alone could elevate a person to the position of mayor in their own town. None of the modern day great historical achievements, or even the existence of history itself, would have been possible without the technology of the written word.
However, now the written world has come to life. I can jot down a few lines using the same letters that my ancestors used thousands of years ago and those lines can fundamentally alter the world around me. They can create a company that feeds me and others. They can control the temperature in my home. They can monitor the health of my newborn baby. Code empowers me to re-invent the world. It allows me to play with the fundamental elements of my civilization and it will continue to do so long after I am gone.
What about the artifact itself? The piece of code itself? Its look and structure? Thinking about the aesthetics of code is interesting in and of itself because code has a kind of visual poetry to it. The poet William Carlos Williams was a poet of the dawn of the twentieth century who started to view poetry as a visual art form as well as a literal one. Many have speculated that this was because he wrote on a typewriter and as such was deeply affected by the appearance of the words on the page. The words had the semblance of what they would look like in printed book form. Therefore, the end product was closer to the first. The technology of creating fundamentally changed the creation, but also the maker, the poet, and the act of writing poetry. Poetry was never the same after the typewriter.
With all these new powers, how will our world change, and how quickly? How will the tools we have made continue to re-make us?
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