How Creative Is Coding?

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Jacob Silverman mulls over whether coding counts as art:

Coding, some of its practitioners claim, is an art form. This argument often hinges on the notion, promulgated by prominent industry figures like the venture capitalist Paul Graham, that coders are “makers.” They produce remarkable things — essays crafted out of the programming languages C# or Javascript that, like a literary essay, depend on elegance, precision, and a knowledge of form. Their creations sometimes affect humanity on a massive scale. According to this calculus, the operating system designed by Steve Wozniak for the Apple II might be as important as Macbeth.

For the novelist Vikram Chandra, who spent years working as a computer programmer and consultant, this comparison holds some appeal. But, as he argues in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, his first nonfiction book, it’s a rather facile argument, one that incorporates some unacknowledged biases, including the American tech industry’s particular blend of nerdy arrogance and latent machismo.

Yes, Chandra acknowledges, “coders – like poets – manipulate linguistic structures and tropes,” he says, and coders also “search for expressivity and clarity.”

But the virtues of what might be called “beautiful code” are different than those of beautiful art. “Beautiful code,” he writes, quoting Yukihirio “Maz” Matsumodo (the creator of the Ruby programming language), “is really meant to help the programmer be happy and productive.” It serves a purpose. Art, by its very nature, serves no purpose. Code is practical and logical. Art is about affect, associations, and emotional responses — part of what Chandra calls dhvani. The term, developed by Anandavardhana, a ninth-century Indian literary theorist, derives from a word meaning “to reverberate.” Dhvani is resonance or “that which is not spoken,” as Chandra says. Code is explicit. Art can be irrational and leave some of the most important things unsaid.

(Image by Kim Dong-Kyu after Caspar David Friedrich)