The Aesthetics of Source Code - Pierre Depaz

Further definition of topic and future outline of work


main report


At the beginnning of the Spring semester 2020, I had established a clear research direction, directed at what role aesthetics have in the process of understanding source code. While the definition of aesthetics upon which this research relies is based on aesthetics as a physical manifestation which can be grasped by the senses. The limitation of this starting point is justified mainly by the object of this study. By approaching source code as an object (or, rather, as multiplicity of objects, “texts” written and read), rather than as a concept, I therefore put its graspable aspects in the foreground. While the social, cultural, intellectual and emotional components are still significant in the appreciation of beauty in source code, the comparative lack of close examination of how code is written is the justification for such a definition of aesthetics.

What still needed to be defined, however, was the meaning of “understanding”. The work conducted this semester has therefore focused on the gathering and examination of the corpus of source code texts, along with the accompanying explanations, justifications and overall meta-texts, in order to find out how are references to “beauty” and “understanding” made. Amongst the vast majority of the corpus elements, practicioners tend to present or discuss a piece of source code which they consider “beatiful”, “aesthetically pleasing”, and accompany this presentation with justifications about how to make a piece of code beautiful and/or why make a piece of code beautiful, and it is these discourses that are used to elaborate on what source code aesthetics look like in practice, as well as what kind of role they play in the life of source code text. This process has also led to the constitution of an initial set of aesthetic properties that are repeatedly highlighted by a certain sub-set of practictioners. In effect, the group of those who write and read source code is far from being homogeneous, and can actually be grouped into at least three distinct categories: computer science, computational science and software development (Brian Hayes 1). While additional sources establish their own distinctions234, the multiplicity of contexts within which code is written leaves litte doubt. Leaving aside a thorough defintion of each of these, I’ve identified five main categories of individuals writing and reading source code, which I group under the umbrella term code practicioners. These categories include: computer scientist, software engineer, hacker, amateur/student and artist. These categories intend to provide heuristics, rather than strict definitions, and each of these categories can overlap within one individual or group of individuals. The sub-sets of practicioners examined so far include software engineers and artists—and thanks to the aforementioned overlap of categories, I am making the hypothesis that the initial findings made through the comparison of how aesthetics are conceived of by engineers and artists will be reinforced and further qualified during the examination of how the remaining categories (scientists, hackers, amateurs). This approach also allows me to requalify our definition of aesthetics: building on Rancière and Goodman, aesthetics can also be understood as a relationship to the human. In the midst of this tension between individual and group, I intend to leave room for individual aesthetics, and group aesthetics.

established software engineering practices
sum up those aesthetic standards
shifted from singular understanding to plural understandings
highlighted code’s uncertainty as a literary object, and rather as a crafting resource
next steps

these understandings could be the interplay between theoretical, craft and literature

keep in mind

giving up the understanding in order to understand better (cognitive noise is related to the level of skill) a problem of a lot of research is inventing a new language without inventing new ideas

questions that i need help with

words as problem solvers (in reference to the book pat found, where the author states that programming is treated as a management problem, and not a mathematical one: but in both cases, we’re still talking about source code (and to what extent is it always the “same” source code?), a unique object/practice/paradigm which enables us to solve problems (and now, to what extent are these problems dependent on source code? or is it because source code (as computation) can solve theoretically any problem? and is that beautiful in itself?))

notes from xcoax

while it’s nice to have an overview of humanities at the beginning, it would be interesting to have reconciliation/reconsideration of those views by the end of this paper

relationship to art? yes, but tangential question question to the understanding of beauty? yes, but tangential question

~~apparent symmetry vs. assymetry of reading vs. writing~~ taken into account, see above

information is value, or information has value? (just because you have it, or because you know how to use it?)