code as poetry

  • Please excuse the length and rambling nature.

So what’s the point of poetry? Of course there’s no singular point or even maybe any point at all. What’s the point of code? Generally to solve a problem in an efficient manner. So they’re quite different in that regard, but it’s not all about conscious purpose, the execution itself can be the art.

The manner of execution may be beautiful, but most of us are not paid to create beauty, we’re paid to create simple and low maintenance. This was my previous stance; the most beautiful code is that which is never seen after deployment, because it runs forever and never breaks, and that was a tragedy because art needs to be perceived in order to be art. But maybe it doesn’t, after all. I think there are many reasons to become a programmer, but fame in the art world probably isn’t in most people’s lists. There’s a cliché of the artist unknown in her own lifetime, but that doesn’t make her any less of an artist - so what if she is unknown even outside of her own lifetime, is acclaim or even a published body of work necessary to be an artist?

What about impact? The best art can uproot societies and create movements that outlast the creators by generations. The best code can make someone rich. Maybe give them a stint on the conference circuit where some other people go ‘hey, that idea might make me rich, too!’. I don’t currently hold forth with the tech as emancipation line, because most of the people benefitting from the current bubble are not those in most need of emancipation.

A crucial point is are we talking about the code or the program? If we’re talking about the code then there’s a barrier to entry for the audience to appreciate the contents - unless they’re a fan of indentation then most code would not be understood on the most basic level, and so can’t really be poetry*? I suggest poetry is written in a language its intended audience understands, it’s not written for people with qualifications in poetry theory.

If we’re talking about the running program then we’ve got a much bigger discussion, but none of it is relevant to code as poetry.

I suppose creating a new programming language may be akin to poetry, as the creator makes a new framework of ideas which can allow programmers to think about things differently, like art that connects thoughts that the perceiver may already have had in mind but never considered related.

There’s also an elegance in fundamentals, an algorithm or equation that becomes beautiful for its simplicity, like Euler’s identity is often argued to be. I don’t know the uses of it, but I do see a beauty in two derived constants interacting with an abstract number and the two natural numbers needed to create all other natural numbers. Does my lack of contextual understanding make it any less beautiful?

  • see https://www.cise.ufl.edu/~manuel/obfuscate/pi.c - an entry to a C obfuscation contest where pi was approximated by a program, the code of which was formatted in a circle that measured it’s own dimensions can be argued to be appreciated without understanding the source - I like it and I don’t understand it. But you probably like it just from that description, you don’t even need to look at the code. It’s an intellectual exercise, clever but pointless?


Published

15 October 2015