TITLE: Musings on Software, Programming, and Art AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 09, 2009 7:48 PM DESC: ----- BODY: My in-flight and bedtime reading for my ChiliPLoP trip was William Stafford's Writing the Australian Crawl, a book on reading and especially writing poetry, and how these relate to Life. Stafford's musings are crashing into my professional work on the trip, about solving problems and writing programs. The collisions give birth to disjointed thoughts about software, programming, and art. Let's see what putting them into words does to them, and to me.
Intention endangers creation. An intentional person is too effective to be a good guide in the tentative act of creating.
I often think of programming as art. I've certainly read code that felt poetic to me, such as McCarthy's formulation of Lisp in Lisp (which I discussed way back in an entry on the unity of data and program. But most of the programs we write are intentional: we desire to implement a specific functionality. That isn't the sort of creation that most artists do, or strive to do. If we have a particular artifact in mind, are we really "creating"? Stafford might think not, and many software people would say "No! We are an engineering discipline, not an artistic one." Thinking as "artists", we are undisciplined; we create bad software: software that breaks, software that doesn't serve its intended purpose, software that is bad internally, software that is hard to maintain and modify. Yet many people I know who program know... They feel something akin to artistry and creation. How can we impress both sides of this vision on people, especially students who are just starting out? When we tell only one side of the story, we mislead.
Art is an interaction between object and beholder.
Can programs be art? Can a computer system be art? Yes. Even many people inclined to say 'no' will admit, perhaps grudgingly, that the iPod and the iPhone are objects of art, or at least have elements of artistry in them. I began writing some of these notes on the plane, and all around me I see iPods and iPhones serving people's needs, improving their lives. They have changed us. Who would ever have thought that people would be willing to watch full-length cinematic films on a 2" screen? Our youth, whose experiences are most shaped by the new world of media and technology, take for granted this limitation, as a natural side effect of experiencing music and film and cartoons everywhere. Yet iPods aren't only about delivering music, and iPhones aren't just ways to talk to our friends. People who own them love the feel of these devices in their hands, and in our lives. They are not just engineered artifacts, created only to meet a purely functional need. They do more, and they are more.
Intention endangers creation.
Art reflects and amplifies experience. We programmers often look for inspirations to write programs by being alert to our personal experience and by recognizing disconnects, things that interrupt our wholeness. Robert Schumann said, To send light into the darkness of men's hearts -- such is the duty of the artist. Artists deal in truth, though not in the direct, assertional sense we often associate with mathematical or scientific truth. But they must deal in truth if they are to shine light into the darkness of our hearts. Engineering is sometimes defined as using scientific knowledge and physical resources to create artifacts that achieve a goal or meet a need. Poets use words, not "physical resources", but also shapes and sounds. Their poems meet a need, though perhaps not a narrowly defined one, or even one we realize we had until it was met in the poem. Generously, we might think of poets as playing a role somewhat akin to the engineer. How about engineers playing a role somewhat akin to the artist? Do engineers and programmers "send light into the darkness of men's hearts"? I've read a lot of Smalltalk code in my life that seemed to fill a dark place in my mind, and my soul, and perhaps even my heart. And some engineered artifacts do, indeed, satisfy a need that we didn't even know we had until we experienced them. And in such cases it is usually experience in the broadest sense, not the mechanics of saving a file or deleting our e-mail. Design, well done, satisfies needs users didn't know they had. This applies as well to the programs we write as to any other artifact that we design with intention. I have more to write about this, but at this time I feel a strong urge to say "Yes". -----