Is Code Beautiful, Part 2: Black boxes, invisible work

In a fit of thesis-writing procrastination, I have been reading articles that explore how difficult it is to call some things “society” and other things “technology”. One of these is Adrian Mackenzie’s article on Java programming as a virtual practice. In it he describes the way that Java programmers, because of the way they construct their functioning code from repositories of previous APIs, are caught between perceptions of their own role as “consumers” and “producers” of the internet. At the same time, the code they write is configured by attachment and identifications to all kinds of other documents. In other words, the work of Java programming is in reading, understanding, and recombining other bits of code, written knowledge, and marketing pressure. So what is presented as Java, then, is a virtual construction: virtual because it is shifting, unstable, and perpetually reconstructed.

All of this made me think about the work of coding, so I thought I would return last year’s question about the beauty of computer code. For me as a non-coder, the actual functioning of computer code is completely hidden – in science studies terms it is “black-boxed” – about as obvious to me as the controls of an airplane. But blueprints for an airplane are beautiful, so why not code?

A little while ago I tagged along to Rotterdam as part of Hive Network’s entourage at the Dutch Electronic Art Festival. At the festival many pieces played with the idea of stripping off the representational elements of “new media art” and displaying the means of production (code, hardware, electrical current, machine construction) as themselves artistic (see MK’s wonderful photo here for one example). But is the code itself beautiful? I was tempted to think of it as a sort of technique that could facilitate art, but might not in and of itself constitute art. A bit like the way watercolour can produce both subtle landscapes and paint-by-numbers, or tiles can make a mosaic or line the bathroom wall.

I wasn’t sure if this was being uncharitable, so I one morning I decided to ask the In-House Hacker (IHH). As usual, we had stayed up rather late and left the flat in a mess before going to bed, but by the time I got up everything was tidy and the kettle was boiling. The IHH was already frowning at a laptop in concentration. It was as if the disaster of the previous evening had been made invisible: housework, essentially, placed in a black box. Outside the window the garden had been watered, weeds pulled, blossoms coaxed and tended. And the IHH, sitting there working was still at it. Tidying, streamlining, ordering, compiling.

Making things beautiful? Or creating the perfect conditions for art, for beauty, to blossom?