May 22, 2008

The Craft and Aesthetics of Code

Category: Academic,Aesthetics,F/OSS,Geekitude,Hackers,Tech,UNIX — Biella @ 3:48 am

Someone recently asked me whether it was difficult to fill up my syllabus for my hacker course. I wish. The hard part is actually deciding what to put on as there is too much.

This is what I have so far but it will likely change over the summer. I have read a lot of the material but what I most excited about is teaching/reading Richard Sennet’s new book on Craft, which was recently reviewed in depth and in relationship to open source (which Sennet does discuss briefly) by Siva Vaidyanathan in the Chronicle of Higher Education (an article that I co-authored also got some props in the review, which is always nice).

The question of what type of activity programming is a complex and deeply interesting one. Its craft-like roots, in part, have to do with the UNIX tradition, something written about humorously by Neal Stephenson and more seriously by other folks like Peter Salus and Chris Kelty in his wonderful rich chapter on UNIX.

But craft is not enough to understand coding either. The aesthetics of coding also is a literary affair and the two pieces that capture the aesthetics of code in this light are the following two, also on my syllabus:

Black, Maurice
2002 “At the Edge of Language: The Art of Code.” (a PhD Dissertation from the Department of English at UPenn)

Chopra, Samir and Scott Dexter
2007 “Free Software and the Aesthetics of Code.” In Decoding Liberation.

I am excited to review this material, as I need to work through my own chapter on software coding, which is less about the aesthetics of code and more about the tension between collaboration and individualism in production (which obviously maps onto questions of craft and aesthetics but is not quite the same thing).

1 Comment »

  1. Looks like a great course, Biella!

    I ended up spending a lot of time thinking about the aesthetics of code while writing my thesis. And while I do think that there is some aspect of artistic aesthetic to code, I also think it is notoriously tricky to examine this anthropologically.

    I end up arguing that the aesthetics of a piece of code depends on the eye of the beholder, which again plays back into whole collaboration vs. individualism discussion you mention (and which is at the very core of F/OSS communities of practice).

    I’d love to discuss this with you sometime. :-)

    Comment by Andreas — May 23, 2008 @ 4:58 am

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