Finally cool

There is a specific reason that computer programming was not considered cool for most of its existence: Programming computers was not perceived as part of the means of cultural production. Writing a play, shooting a film, singing a song or playing the guitar, showing your paintings in a gallery, these are all seen as ways of expressing the human condition – comedy and tragedy, romance, conflict, passion. Having your finger on the pulse of the human condition has always been the height of coolness.

Not that artists are not technically adept. Yes, of course the Beatles were consummate technicians, as were Shakespeare and daVinci. But their subject was love and pain and joy and beauty and longing and alienation – the things people care about deeply, the matters of the soul that bind us all together.

Programmers were seen, at best, as part of the plumbing of cultural production – the roadie, not the rock star. And so the somewhat unfair stereotype emerged of the “pencil necked geek”, the guy or gal you keep in the back room because they don’t play well with others, the ones who don’t how to dress cool for a party, or even know where the cool parties are.

That cultural perception has changed very recently, for one reason: There are currently around 75000 iPhone apps.

Think about that for a moment – not the reality itself, but the perception that goes along with that reality. The iPhone is cool, and iPhone Apps are hot. And this is because those Apps are cultural statements – interventions into the general social zeitgeist – which makes them socially relevant, like Yo Yo Ma, The Simpsons, early U2 songs and Schindler’s List.

From a cultural perspective, iPhone Apps are about something. They make a statement, tell a joke, strike an attitude. They aren’t the guy setting up the amp before the concert – they are that other guy, the one up there onstage nailing the killer guitar riff in front of thousands of screaming fans.

And here’s the kicker: 75000 iPhone Apps means, more or less, 75000 programmers. For the first time the larger culture is being presented with unmistakable evidence that programmers can be the cool kids – the ones that can pick up that guitar and sing a song that reaches into the core of your being.

Yes, there were cool programmers before this. Will Wright – creator of SimCity, The SIMS and Spore – is an obvious example. But people could tell themselves that he, and the few like him, were the exception that proved the rule. There are maybe a handful of rock star game designers – certainly not enough to constitute a general cultural type.

But there’s no arguing away the existence of 75000 cool programmers. They don’t even all need to be good. They just need to be as culturally relevant as uploaders of YouTube videos. Suddenly, for the first time, there is general awareness that computer programs are being written – by a lot of people – that directly contribute to the culture on an emotional/cultural/political level.

And so, one hundred and sixty seven years after Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program, programming is finally cool.

6 Responses to “Finally cool”

  1. manooh says:

    Aah, I never felt cooler 😉
    Still, programming seems to be something obscure to many people. A black-box job that they can’t relate to. All they might understand (in some cases, at least) is the outcome.

  2. LastSilmaril says:

    I definitely get different reactions from people if I tell them I’m working on an iPhone app vs if I tell them I do programming….

  3. David says:

    I started to programming at 7 (today I’m 33), and I’ve seen so many cool things all this time, made from a mind of many creator, that I feel biased your post.

    It seems in your analisys that just the guys who make things for iPhone are truly creators, cool, or anything like that.

    I’d prefer to see things like that: everyday there, since early days of computers, there are a great number of creative and smart persons making unbelievable programs. The only difference is that most of those softwares don’t reach the masses, many of them are made to a specific target, and the kind of creativity used there sometimes can’t be even seen by the final users.

    I don’t mean to sound like “-users are blind to the beauty of programming”, I just stated that this is the kind of art that you need to have some specific background to understand. Like a joke that only makes sense to someone who knows a situation.

    When I was asked “-What do you do ?”, I used to say: “I make the things you aren’t seeing there in this computer”.

    There are really beautiful castles running inside of those boxes.

    Programing is definitivelly an art, and It’s far away from just a technical skill. Techinical skills can be taught and executed by anyone. Programming needs techinical skills, of course, but needs a lot of creativity. Like Michellangelo, who can think and draw a machine like an helicopter, programers are used to think and WRITE theirs creations.

  4. admin says:

    David, you are preaching to the converted. I’ve spent years happily making art and various forms of “cultural production” using programming, as have many of the people I know.

    I certainly don’t think there is anything new about programming being a powerful creative tool for aesthetic exploration and artistic expression. I do think there is something new in public perception of this long standing truth.

    It’s been weird to spend all of these years being a “secret artist”. Relatively small communities certainly knew about this all along – eg: SIGGRAPH, Ars Electronica, GDC, the Demo Scene – but not millions of people.

    The impact of the iPhone App culture has been to make clear to the many what has long been obvious to the few.

  5. David says:

    I got the idea. Yes, you are truly right in your point of view.

    The term “secret artist” is a good one. Even among IT people, there’s just a reduced group of people that maybe who can see the true beauty of some solutions.

    I think maybe this is the reason that when we found people who can understand our creations we feel so compeeled to share knowledge instead of still keep it like a secret: it’s proud to share with to the ones who wants it, and at same time this is the way we can have it to be apreciated. It’s because instead of a material painting, the best art we can produce are thoughts.

  6. Michael says:

    Having just stumbled across a review of Rock Band: the Beatles (the game) – I wonder when hackers, coders, programmers will really be as cool.

    Hacker (for PS3, XBox360 and Wii): Re-create classic hacks by Stallman, Knuth and Perlin (comes with “keyboard” style game controllers).
    Now with bonus levels to let your friends join in the fun: Linux kernel hacks.

    Hm, we’re not quite there yet 😀

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