Departments

Programming

I.

Programming, though not itself a humanity, can serve as one in the same practical role that Latin did. Latin's role as the introduction to liberal learning was, for most students, less to enable them to read the classical authors in the original with comfort—that attainment always belonged to relatively few—than by its exacting grammar, and its subtle and exact vocabulary, to form the mind to a tolerance for nuance and habit of precision instrumental to all kinds of intellectual progress.

Programming, which begins with the abstracted essence of grammar and involves and iterates it to eddied depths and spiraling heights which language cannot sustain, enforces a power of expression as exact and as subtle as the expectation of literal interpretation can make it.

Any kind of work which approaches perfection by a cycle of degrees intermitted by trial, feedback, and return to the beginning—draft and revision, model and prototype, mock-up and construction—similarly strengthens the faculties at each return; but programming does it fastest, and most bracingly. Any programmer knows how the pain and boredom of protracted debugging leaves a hollow feeling in the brain like a sore muscle, which becomes, after a rest, the certainty of having become a little smarter.

For the education of a mind (rather than of a jobholder, which has other priorities) I would have the basics of programming taught before any math beside arithmetic, and before even English grammar. For this end proficiency is not required; to instill a respect for whitespace and documentation, and a physical disgust for unclosed quotation marks or parentheses, would be just enough.

II.

Programming is the ultimate mimesis. Its reach is the reproduction, not only of the world and everything in it, but of all possible worlds. In this way—because to address anything well, a programmer must do so in a way which potentially addresses everything—programming is the only great centripetal intellectual force of our time; and programming is the only profession left where it pays to have a universal mind.

Kenneth Clark, in his essay "The Concept of Universal Man," usefully defines a universal mind, on the model of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, as one which, seeing a natural phenomenon, wishes to understand it; which, seeing a human design, wishes to improve it; and to do all this for humanity's benefit.

Programming does not, by itself, yield those values; but it gives that power. The willingness to see designs and procedures as expedient and perishable contrivances—not the unanswerable inheritance of wisdom or tradition—is predicated on the ability to extract them from the inertia of their contexts by translating them into a precise and neutral language.

III.

In this way, programming drives toward philosophy. Ada Byron, the first person to understand programming, called herself "a metaphysician and an analyst"; and programmers have never been able to escape philosophy. In object-orientation they have created the first experimental metaphysics; and throughout their work, they run into old problems as they work toward the old goal: clear and distinct ideas.

This kind of philosophy is unlike what is taught in schools, or practiced by those who professionally call themselves philosophers. The essayist and hacker—master programmer, in his sense—Paul Graham, in his "How to Do Philosophy," has called it a new kind of philosophy. But "there is nothing new but what has been forgotten."

The Stoics required philosophy to show and to resolve definite choices in life; they required the philosopher to be visibly and measurably changed by the practice of philosophy. This should not be confused with a positivist dismissal of word-chopping (though some of the same arguments recur), or a pragmatist tolerance for vagueness as long as it yields results. Programmers are willing to make and adhere to subtle distinctions, even without obvious applicability, as long as they are part of an useful perspective; and they are the more unwilling to leave an idea vague as it proves useful, believing that its refinement can only make it more potent, and more widely useful.

It is suggestive that programmers' favored literary mode (as Graham evidences) is the essay—which Montaigne created on the model of Stoic discourses.

This resemblance to Stoicism is not accidental; it is so strong that it is two-way. Chrysippus, the father or forerunner of Stoicism, was also the inventor of a formalized logic (perhaps even partially symbolic). Had the Romans invented computers, he would have stood in the same relation to their computer languages that Boole does to ours.

Such an affinity between a discipline and a school of philosophy is familiar from mathematics. Mathematicians are either Platonists, or not; and if not, that is what matters. What they are instead is incidental. Mathematicians, even naming themselves Platonists, do not support the scheme of the Republic; programmers do not teach eternal return or pantheism.

But show me a committed programmer who does not believe in the possibility and necessity of a radical and unconditional independence; who does not at once value loyalty as both the best thing that can be offered, and the least that is to be expected; who does not think happiness only as valuable as it is won through courage, not received as a gift or stroke of luck—or, conversely, who does not find unhappiness or querulousness contemptible in the intelligent, as if they should know better; and you have found an exception to the rule.

Arts and science

Science is different from older ways of using reason to understand the world because of its connection with the arts, in the sense of mimesis. The Greeks tried to explain things in the world, or to prove things about it. But science explains or proves only pragmatically and indirectly, because scientific understanding is not itself either explanation or proof: it is image, likeness, imitation.

The beginning of science is the principle that things which behave alike, are alike—even at disparate scales, under disparate circumstance, or for disparate ends. Either one is a version of the other, or both are by the same law. Gravity alike draws moon to apple and apple to moon; selection produces the artificial breed and the natural species; circulating information knots into systems like ecologies and minds.

Science is not a form of art; but no society has ever produced a scientific discovery unless its arts were already mature. The periods of Muslim scientific discovery were also periods of toleration for the representative arts—to explain the pulmonary circulation, Ibn an-Nafis had to draw a diagram. A scientist does not have to be an artist, nor does an artist does not have to be a scientist; but philistine scientists and superstitious artists are not pure, but lazy. Their countries are separate but not independent—they have different climates, but the same atmosphere; different shores, but the same sea beyond.

Brunelleschi, as a painter, created perspective, and mathematicians caught up with projective geometry. Chemists created new pigments and Impressionists, who saw the world in "patches of color," saw a new world.

More characteristically, the sciences of anatomy and natural history were created by, and still depend on, artists. The work of the anatomist is to reconcile a body, a continuous and not always clearly differentiated mass of cells, with the Body; the work of the naturalist, to reconcile the adaptive and adapting ramifications of a common descent, with a scheme of Species; but the human Body, the animal Species, are abstractions made by art—anatomical drawings exhibit the plan of the Body, naturalists' drawings exhibit the scheme of the Species, to show what is meant by the name before embodiment.

Leonardo called himself a the disciple of experience; Galileo looked to the book of nature; the formulations are interchangeable because arts and sciences are vulnerable to the same danger of self-regard. Original art is original not by breaking with tradition, but because it returns to the "master of masters," to nature; and original science is not done by pressing on with the great questions in hand, but by looking to nature, not to force an answer, but to find the right question.

Ticking

The sound of ticking is passing out of the world—at least out of the public spaces, and out of most private lives. Monks first heard it, in stone chambers with narrow high windows, where wrought-iron heaps of parts, marked with hammer-shadows, had been formed into what would become known as the first clocks. And each slip of the escarpment must have had the finality of a hammer blow, must have echoed from the walls like thunder from the valleys.

They built these machines to find the hours of prayer when the sun was hidden by the clouds of their northern climate—strange to think now, that it was ever possible for time to be overclouded—and how unbearable it must have been, a whole community losing hours every day, vainly glancing at the sundial or the frozen water-clock, living together in that state of time deprivation which psychologists assure us can drive an individual insane—which is now sometimes used as a method of torture.

But then there were clocks, clocks everywhere—clocks in the towers, then clocks in the street, a clock in the hall, a clock on the mantle, a clock in the pocket, a clock on the wrist—and each one slipping to tick, slipping to tick, the sound never far away, like the world's breathing, running through everything—the frantic tick of a wristwatch, the steady pulse of a pocket watch, the white noise of a bedstand clock, the creaking (always ready to fill awkward silences) of a mantle clock, the stately tick-tock of a case clock (crouched like a mastiff in the hall, strong and reassuring, pendulum steady and slow as the voice of a murmuring poet), the crawling, hatefully patient unwinding of the clock on the office wall.

Hearing has more in common with touch than with sight; and the noises we know too well to notice are like a steady, guiding hand, with touches that re-assure and comfort. (Movies are dreamlike largely because that medium or atmosphere of sounds is thinned out to a conscious selection from a library of sound-conventions.)

The flow of centuries has been measured out by the space between ticks—when the tick has ticked and is gone like the time that it took, but still the next tick is to come to tick and go on to the next. Now, think of the effect of a mother's heartbeat in the womb, of a mother's breathing on an infant, of a mother's voice on a child; and think of this sound, more certain than a heartbeat, as needful as breathing, the voice of a clock's willful presence. How could it not have formed the minds of those who grew up with it? How can its departure not have some effect, somehow change the world?

So many old, good sounds are going or gone, or become kinds of luxury: the clatter of hooves, the scraping of gears. People seem somehow still to know that records skip; but when they hear a record skip, do they feel the urgent need to get up and free the needle? With portable music players and satellite radio, even static may come to be a mere indulgence, a touch or a flavor.

City people know little of the noises of the country, the wavelike near and far of barking, the symphonies of the birds, the ragas of cicadas, the call and response of the frogs—or the kind of suspenseful quiet when I set a ticking clock by my ear only to cover the sound of my own breathing. But they know the city's sounds, and that sound which is the city—the rumble of the cars, of millions of chattering explosions actuating thousands of careening pistons, and of the asphalt flexing and the manhole covers shuddering, and the wheels slipping and the brakes shrieking, and the horns blowing and the air brakes sighing. And undernearth—what is underneath? What world is in the cities, on the other side of the combustion engine? If not too long from now the streets are full of cars which glide silently and trail only steam (and will the sidewalks be clammy and tropical with the steam?), if the cars of the future are to be ghost cars, seen but unheard, silent as sailboats—what sound of the city is behind? And could it be borne? So many millions of people—could you hear a million alarm clocks go off at the same time? A million people laughing at once at the same primetime joke, or cheering the same pass, or cursing the same fumble? How far would the music of the clubs carry, would the steel-framed buildings thrum with the beats from their subwoofers as they shiver now at the passing of trucks? The Romans said magna civitas magna solitudo—the greater the city, the more alone in it—but what does the city become, if you can shout to your friend across the breadth of a crowded street, and be heard? When you cannot help but hear the sick old men rave? When the gunshot in the slums can be heard in the bedrooms of the mansions, and wakes the mayor's children from their sleep?

Nondefinition #20

Ball bearings. What is the power in perfection? A perfect day, not much better than a good day, justifies a life; a perfect face, not much better than a good face, launches 1000 ships; and a perfect little metal sphere, not much rounder than a toy marble, allows us to remake the world. If we can but learn to make a perfect sphere of hydrogen, rounder than round by an invisible increment, we can have our power from tame stars. Sometimes striving for perfection is foolish, the enemy of the good; but perfection itself should not be despised—when the key fits, doors open.