SOFTWARE programmers like to think of their work as art. Paul Graham, a programmer and Silicon Valley investor, wrote in 2003 that “of all the different types of people I’ve known, hackers and painters are among the most alike.”
Love in the time of killing
- Man of the moment
- The measure of man
- Masks and magic
For geeks this is a seductive conceit. There is more to programming, they say, than simply telling a computer what to do. Effective code can also be elegant, even beautiful. In making something out of nothing, it stands shoulder to shoulder with art. But who is to judge? Few programmers are actually artists. Fewer artists can code. Vikram Chandra, an Indian author who made money as a programmer in America while he was writing his first book, takes on the challenge with “Geek Sublime”. The result is partly aesthetic analysis, partly an investigation of linguistic theory, partly a history of programming—and an entirely original work.
Although he has long since given up programming for profit, it remains a passion. Mr Chandra starts by establishing his credentials. He grew up in India and he points out that about 40% of all start-ups in Silicon Valley are founded by Indians. (On February 4th an Indian who says “The best code is poetry” was appointed the boss of Microsoft.) Mr Chandra’s first book was about the grammatical rules of Sanskrit, an extensive and rigid code not so different from computer programming. Indeed, he is not the first to note the similarities. Indians can make a strong claim to shaping modern computing, and Indian geeks have long discussed Sanskrit’s rules.
It takes a while for “Geek Sublime” to get to its argument. But the wait is worth it. Mr Chandra’s description of how computers work is masterly. A line of code in something that resembles English is so far abstracted from the 1s and 0s that computers use that professional programmers have been known to admit, “I don’t know how computers work!” Mr Chandra lays this out it in language a novice can grasp. He goes on to explain how Sanskrit scholars understood aesthetics, choosing ancient texts which, he says, describe “resonance”—a fuzzy concept involving feelings reverberating with soul—and emotional bonding, which can change with different readers and different readings. In essence, he describes emotions that will be familiar to anybody who has been touched by a work of art.
The proposition in “Geek Sublime” is simple, even if the lengthy explanations required to get there are not. If it is possible to write and appreciate poetry and literature in as rule-bound a language as Sanskrit, surely it is possible to do so in code. Alas, concludes Mr Chandra, it is not. The point of code is to “process and produce logic”, whereas “the language of art can fracture grammar and syntax, can fail to transmit meaning but still cause emotion.” That is a crucial difference. It may not be the conclusion he hoped to reach, but the pleasure of reading repays the effort.
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