The romantic view of programming

I was attending a panel recently on the topic of new media art that seemed to be culturally split. There were panelists who were talking about abstract concepts like “algorithm” as though these were arcane postmodern terms, full of mysterious power and potential menace.

Then there were panelists who just program every day to create their art. One of these panelists was trying to explain that an algorithm isn’t some mysterious force insidiously removing agency from humans.

Rather, she explained, a work of art can get complex, so it’s good for an artist to build and then use tools to do some of the low level manual work. This ability to delegate low level labor to computers frees up the artist to work at different levels — ideally levels that contain a richer opportunity for aesthetic expression.

This general idea is very familiar in other contexts. We don’t force writers to write everything out longhand, or sculptors to dig their own clay. They can if they want to, but that is their choice to make.

I found that everything this artist resonated strongly with me. To the people on the panel much of what she said seemed mysterious. Yet to me it all seemed sensible to the point of being obvious.

And it occurred to me that she and I are both what might from what might be called the romantic view of programming, as opposed to the modernist or post-modernist views of programming. People like us are very straightforward on the topic of art and creativity, and how we used computer programming to make our work.

We do not talk around the subject of art, and the tools used to create that art, as though it is some mysterious cultural construct. Instead we just roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes to create our art.

When you look at the world in this way, “algorithm” isn’t a cultural concept to be deconstructed — it is a means toward the goal of creating beauty in the world. And if some software tool you need doesn’t exist, you build it.

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