Software vs. Art

Jamie Richards asks an intelligent question in response to my essay on
deadly genius in the arts:

I’m not programming-savvy at all, so maybe this is crap… what do you
think about the idea that computer programming is a cultural area
operating under the same conditions that set up the “Modernist

As I understand it, in the proprietary model of software building, a
company patron spends money to create products that are
“comprehensible to the patron’s peers.” In open-source software
building, programmers self-select, working on projects that are
interesting to them (art for art’s sake…). “The breakneck pace of
technological change” certainly applies to this chunk of human
history, as well.

Indeed it does, and your question is both subtle and astute.
However, you’ve missed a crucial difference between software projects
and fine art. Software has to work. Every piece of software
exists in order to achieve some instrumental goal, and can be
evaluated on how well it achieves that goal.

The vast con-game that most of modern art has become relies on a
definition of “art” that equates it with pure expressiveness. The
modern “artist” can say of some randomly ugly artifact “this is my artistic
statement, and if you don’t get it you are simply proving your own
lack of sensitivity and taste”.

Open-source hackers can’t get away with this sort of thing. If
their code is broken and crash-prone or doesn’t meet the functional
spec it claims to, nobody will take it seriously on any level at all
— much less as art. The requirement of engineering competence
has the kind of constraining and filtering effect on open-source
programming that the patronage system once did on pre-Modern art.

The really sharp reader is going to be asking, right about now,
“OK, so what about architecture?”

Architecture is like programming in that it’s a form of art that
operates within powerful functional constraints. Buildings have to
keep the rain off people, and not collapse on their heads. So why
haven’t those requirements prevented modern architecture from falling
into the back-to-zero trap, from blighting the landscape with
thousands of ugly brutalist cuboids?

We may cheerfully admit that some modern architecture is very
lovely; Santiago Calatrava’s or Eero Saarinen’s organiform buildings
come to mind. Nevertheless, to save the argument I’m making, we need
to show some relevant difference between architecture and software design.

One clue is that modern architects have not in fact forgotten how to
make buildings that fulfil the minimum functional requirements. It is only
in the aesthetic face those buildings present to the world that something
bad has happened. On this analogy, the place we should expect open-source
software to have regressed relative to the products of proprietary patronage
is in the specific area of user-interface design.

I have pointed out
that this is open source’s weakest area. But on closer
examination this analogy doesn’t work so well. Almost any software
user interface (UI) is more complicated and much more interactive than
a typical building’s interface — therefore, much more
constrained by the cognitive limitations of human beings; therefore,
designing software UIs is more like engineering and less like art than
designing building UIs. Thus, the idiom of software UIs is less subject
than is architecture to disruption by an expressive but deadly genius.



    22. Continue discrediting American culture by degrading all forms of artistic expression. An American Communist cell was told to “eliminate all good sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms.”

    23. Control art critics and directors of art museums. “Our plan is to promote ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art.”

    I think the marxist control of achedamia is to blame.

    Except for the sciences and enginering.
    postmodern mental contortionist continue
    their war against reality.

    The art that comes from some of these defective units could be seen as a good representation on the internals of the postmodern brain.

    The cross dunked in excrement or the sacks of garbage thrown out that was (un)mistaken for garbage by the night
    janitor could be seen as just part of
    the leftist agenda exposed to us by that
    actual FBI agent that was then read into the congressional record.

    But as an example of a metaphoric representative of the bloodstained
    leftist egalitarian sludge they call
    thought, perhaps its instructive to
    gain a clue to their inner malfunction
    by looking at what they call art.


  2. Why do for profit companies make software? To make profit. To the degree that there is a relationship between the desire to make profit and making things people want, for profit companies make things people want.

    What is the goal of open source software? It is to make software that the developer wants to make. In the absence of other motivations, this is software the developer wants to use.

    Of course, things get really complex, monopolies get in the way of the former as well as a myriad of other details and problems, and in the case of open source things get in the way too. For instance, I find it ironic that a bunch of libertarians end up arguing crazy business models, etc., that seem ultimately, at the root, to have communism (not socialism!) at the base.

    So let’s not become confused by these complex evolutions, but look at the core.

    Think of Open Source consisting of self interested individuals making software for there own personal goals, much the same as the post modern artists. The developers too often feel they have the moral high-ground, just like the artists. For profit companies are much like mass entertainment. Often, though not always, vapid products result, but they are giving the general public what they want.

  3. Ever had to wait for Cathy to get INTO the women’s room after you’ve gotten into and out of the men’s room? Go ahead, continue to argue that modern architects make buildings that fulfil the minimum functional requirements, I don’t care if you want to be wrong.

  4. The basic topic, Deadly Genius, has set me to thinking, and clearly I’m not the only one.
    As a Science Fiction fan (LASFS since 1978) I think the Deadly Genius idea relates to SF as well.
    I recall well the “New Wave” of the late 60s and early 70s. Called “New Ripple” by a friend of mine, it consisted of a lot of boring, unreadable, “artistic” garbage.
    For a long time I attributed the New Wave to the social instabilities of the time. Thinking about it in the context of the Deadly Genius concept, I can now see that there may have been more to it than that.
    I recently purchased (for 25 centa at a yard-sale) an anthology of the short works of Cordwainer Smith. Reading the stories, I recalled the essay on the Deadly Genius idea. I believe that Cordwainer Smith may have been a deadly genius. More, with its future-oriented ideology, Science Fiction may have been highly vulnerable to a Deadly Genius.
    Reading the New Wave garbage does remind one of Smith. As in it’s all an anemic immitation.
    Fortunately the New Ripple died out and Science Fiction survived.
    I believe that my position is supported by the type of Science Fiction that followed the New Ripple. The mid 70s to the mid 80s in SF was characterized by really “hard” Science Fiction. The ultimate example of hardness was the school of Science Fiction that in the story there would be no technology that we did not already have. The classic LUCIFER’S HAMMER by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is perhaps the clearest example of this trend.

  5. Designing a *usable* software UI for non-computer savvy people requires pure art; HTML was definitely disruptive, deadly genius. Designing software for other software dorks “only” requires engineering.

  6. Neal makes some very interesting observations. If I may attempt to make a huge leap: Old commercial software is more like pre-1900 art: made for a few big companies, who have little use for disrputive brilliance. Open-source software is more like post-1900 art: heeding its own internal imperatives.

    To answer the question, then: open-source itself is the deadly genius of software.

    (Perhaps this is lucky. Open-source isn’t a mere mortal, like Schoenberg or Coltrane, so we won’t have to worry about what comes after.)

  7. A better analogy than UIs for the “facade” elements of architecture might be documentation and online help, another area where open source is uneven at best.

  8. “Almost any software user interface (UI) is more complicated and much more interactive than a typical building’s interface”

    Nonsense. It’s just that the UI interface elements for buildings are based on far older (scores to tens of thousands of years) and far more finely-tuned OS libraries than those available for computer UI elements. The interfaces are sufficiently evolved that they are transparent to users.

  9. Some more stuff I came across:

    As for the ethnotribal issue, it would be interesting to read your reasonings on that. I take it you are a libertarian? Are you familiar with the work of Harvard professor Robert Putnam. In “Bowling alone” and “E pluribus enum” he argues that multiethnic societies lead to loss of social capital between group AND within them.

    1. >I take it you are a libertarian? Are you familiar with the work of Harvard professor Robert Putnam…he argues that multiethnic societies lead to loss of social capital between group AND within them.

      Yes, I am a libertarian, and what I’ve read at second hand about Putnam seems both interesting and disturbing. It is true that ethno-tribal solidarity, like trust networks produced by religion, can be a form of social capital. But not all ways of generating social capital are equal in my eyes; some promote individual liberty and free choice, others don’t. That’s why I prefer the social capital produced by participation in market-mediated trade networks to the social capital produced by religions and ethno-tribal solidarity.

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