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GEEK SUBLIME by Vikram Chandra


The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty

by Vikram Chandra

Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-55597-685-9
Publisher: Graywolf

A fruitful exploration of computer-age aesthetics, when artists are making use of programming even as programmers consider themselves artists.

“Poetry’s beauty is infinite,” writes programmer and acclaimed novelist Chandra (Sacred Games, 2007, etc.). True enough, but Windows Vista’s code is still infinitely kludgy, even if, as the author argues, the “iterative processes of programming—write, debug (discover and remove bugs, which are coding errors, mistakes), rewrite, experiment, debug, rewrite—exactly duplicate the methods of artists.” It is an argument that Chandra advances with great subtlety, though it perhaps does not help his case that most of his more extensive examples come from the corpus of Indian, and particularly Sanskrit, literature, which will make that argument sometimes challenging to follow for some readers. Gradually, the book loosens into what at times seem to be only marginally connected essays: Gender parity and code parity are much different things, and the bigness of epics such as the Mahabharata is considerably different from the bigness of big data. Still, there is a charm to Chandra’s sometimes-exotic approach, even as he circles back to some of his central questions: What makes a poem beautiful? Can we use the criteria we employ to answer that question to evaluate a computer program as well? The answers he proposes occasionally open onto still other questions, as with this one: “When programmers say what they do is just like what writers do, or gardeners, or painters, the error is that they aren’t claiming enough, the fault is that they are being too humble. To compare code to works of literature may point the programmer towards legibility and elegance, but it says nothing about the ability of code to materialize logic.”

An engaging exercise in interdisciplinary thought, both elegant and eloquent. Besides, who can resist a text that works karma, Marcel Duchamp and iterative programming into a single thought?