The Aesthetics of Code

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot lately about aesthetics and computing. More specifically, about the divide that exists between form and function in regards to computer code. There are two cultures at work, two views of the same thing, but vastly different. Take the programmer… He sees his job as requiring him to consider two points:

1) The usability, by non-programmers, of the software that he creates

2) How the software (code) is to be maintained by other programmers.

This generally evolves into a sort of reductive language, rather than a productive one. It ends up as a mathematical artifact that becomes embedded in the natural world. Originally, these were not really part of our natural world, because the only demand for computers and software was from the people who created and maintained them. There was no real link to the “normal” world of non-programmers.

But now we, as non-programmers, are beginning to hold opinions about the aesthetic aspects of the programmer’s work. But we’re still in flux, in a state of transition with it all, because for the most part, we still have no idea what the hell a programmer actually DOES. Code is still mysterious, still reserved for geeks, still an arcane, unknowable thing that works as if by magic. We never see it; we’re not concerned with it, any more than we’re concerned with what makes our cars run or our planes fly. We just use it, blindly and happily. Who cares what lurks inside? It plays music on our iGadgets; it streams YouTubes; it lets us text each other, follow each other on Facebook, call each other on Skype. Who cares? It just works. Somehow, all those odd sentences, those brackets and parentheses and semi-colons… well, somehow they just seem to make it all work, and for me that’s all that really matters. Isn’t it?

As McLuhan said, while we’re still focused upon the content of our new digital media, we will fail to recognize its very nature. We’re enamoured of the contents of our computer screen, but we fail to understand that it is the code behind it that creates the rules by which we are now living our lives.

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