Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Artists are Stars. Albums are Planets. Tracks are Moons.

Our title is taken from the designers' introduction to Planetary, an iPad app for visualizing your music collection as solar systems. Planetary has been acquired by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum as its first source code installation.

Apps are infinite objects. There is no limit on the number of people who can simultaneous possess a copy (Planetary has been downloaded more that 3.5 million times), each copy is identical, and does not degrade over time. However, no one can create the app without its source code. There is one copy of the source, making it a scarce object. But is it significant? Can source code be, in effect, a weightless digital work of art?

Damn straight.

I speak from first-person perspective, having been an hands-on programmer for more than 20 years. While not sure I ever became an artist, I was at least a skilled craftsman. There is a creative process to software design, whose hallmarks must be celebrated.

Source code has form, composition, the designer's point of view. The best examples have grace, elegance of expression, economy of language. For every line of code present, there are an untold number of lines that were rejected as either inadequate or superfluous. Great source code is as distinctive as fine literature. It informs, illuminates, educates.

Furthermore, source code must be preserved, because it can only be built for a specific period of time. It may depend on libraries that are no longer maintained by their authors. The hardware platform and operating system for which it was designed may be obsolete. As Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope wrote in the Cooper-Hewitt curatorial statement, "Software and hardware are separate but inescapable companions that exact a sometimes profound and warping, and sometimes destructive, influence on one another." And companies don't last forever. (Bloom, creators of Planetary, closed in November 2012.)

I hope the Cooper Hewitt continues to acquire significant code for this collection. For consideration, I submit Rob Pike's landmark graphics system for the Blit terminal, circa 1983. If you are reading this piece on a computer screen with multiple, overlapping, active windows, you have Mt. Pike to thank. If you are reading this on a mobile device, you should appreciate the need to preserve the generation of interactive techniques that enabled it. And studying the Blit source code taught me everything I ever needed to learn about guru-class programming.

Related: Taxonomy of Objects, Selfish Design.

            Physical-to-Digital Restoration #60            

Artist: Jack DeJohnette
Title: Special Edition
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1979

"The first (and mightiest) of NEA Jazz Master and Grammy Award–winning drummer Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition ensembles offered a sound that in many ways was revolutionary in modern contemporary and creative improvised music circa 1980. This CD deserves a definitive five-star rating for the lofty place it commands in the evolution of jazz headed toward new heights and horizons." [Allmusic] JDJ is one of my musical heroes, AND this release contains the memorable track, Journey to the Twin Planet.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.