February 23, 2004

Fear of Code

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:09 am

“The Enemy Within” is a basically informative — if unexciting — overview article about viruses and worms in the Sunday Observer. But someone appears to have decided that stating the article’s topic honestly wasn’t going to cut it. Hence the headline, and these two sentences that ended up just under it:

He’s 21, he’s got dreadlocks, likes punk bands… and his hobby could wreck your computer in seconds. Clive Thompson infiltrates the secret world of the virus writers who see their work as art – while others fear that it is cyber-terrorism

Apparently the government aren’t the only people in London who like to sex up documents and draw questionable ties to terrorism. But what interests me is how fully the folks at the Observer seem to have missed the point their interviewee was trying to make in their final paragraph. He doesn’t release malicious software into the wild. He views creating an innovative worm, and doing it with elegant code, as “like art.” This is presented as though we’re supposed to find it baffling or frightening. I’m more baffled by the way it’s reported. Haven’t we already established, culturally, that innovative software and elegant code are very much like art?

Correction: What I found on the Observer site appears to be an oddly-truncated version of a more interesting-looking article (with some interesting-looking comments as well).

10 Responses to “Fear of Code”

  1. ian Says:

    Clive is a friend of mine. I’ll ask him to come by and comment.

  2. Clive Says:

    Well, it’s certainly true that the headline isn’t a perfect match of what Philetoaster says in the piece! But in defense of the Observer headline writer, I’d point out that headlines tend to always hyperdramatize a story; in a way, being a bit hype-y is sort of their job — they’re the advertisement for the piece, trying to drag a reader into paying attention to the story, so like all advertisements they’re not really intended to stand on their own: You only get the full goods if you read the article. Not that this excuses any inaccuracy in any headline; journalism’s supposed to be accurate, of course! But headlines usually are more playful than text.

    I’m glad you liked the full piece! It was a blast to write.

    As to the question “Haven’t we already established, culturally, that innovative software and elegant code are very much like art?” … well, that is totally obviously to me, certainly! But just the other day I was arguing with a museum curator about this subject and she wouldn’t buy it at all. I think it’s actually hard for people who’ve never programmed to understand the art behind well-written, elegant software. I sometimes wonder if this will change as time goes on — i.e. whether the Internet is exposing more people to code, and thus almost by osmosis teaching them about the its syntactic, aesthetic, and cognitive styles. Sadly, I doubt it; commercial, for-profit computer and software companies benefit massively from keeping their consumers dumb and from painting their work as mysterious and black-box-like, and schools are, from what I can tell, doing a wretched job of teaching programming.

    I prefer Seymour Papert’s view in his original Mindstorms book — i.e. that programming (and mathematics) constitute a separate language, which can only be learned by immersing oneself in it playfully, much as one learns French best by living in a French-speaking country. But it doesn’t seem like many educators have picked up on his idea.

    By the way, Grand Text Auto rocks!

  3. noah Says:

    Clive, welcome to GTxA!

    I know the job of the headline folks, but I still think this time it’s overboard. Why? Because in the truncated version of your article on the Observer site there is no mention of terrorism in your article text. I imagine you’d agree that, if the version of your article on the Observer site were the complete one, this would be a rather unfortunate example of “let’s throw terrorism into it.” As it is, I guess it’s one editorial hand not knowing what the other is cutting. Of course, it could also be that this is simply some sort of technical glitch, and the full article appeared in the print Observer. I realized that errors like these might be possible after finding your blog (quite nice), and the full article, via Ian – and in these cases I’d agree that the headline writer is within the standards of journalistic practice.

    The larger issue about code is, I know, the more interesting one here. Unfortunately, I’ll have to take up that thread a little later today….

  4. noah Says:

    Okay, now to code. It strikes me that there are two issues that come out of Philetoaster’s comments. One is whether innovative software can be like art, and the other is whether writing elegant code is akin to (other sorts of) artistic practice. I think the press coverage around, say, the release of The Sims Online indicates that innovative software is now at least regarded as a possible kind of “popular art.” We may be further out on the issue of elegant code.

    Clive, I sense that we’re in basic agreement about all of this — which leads me to wonder, are there any GTxA readers out there who disagree? What if I put it more strongly? What if I said that I believe that innovative software can have as strong a claim to the title “art” as any painting, any poem, any piano sonata — would anyone out there want to dispute my assertion?

  5. greglas Says:


    Only because you’re seeking a devil’s advocate… I wouldn’t want to dispute your assertion, but I could point out that (to the extent it may be relevant) even though writing viral software might be an art, it is an art that has an instrumental capacity. Because of this, the distribution of code (even the act of hyperlinking to code) has been banned in some cases where other art forms might be protected as pure speech.

    See e.g., Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Reimerdes,


    I’m not defending the Reimerdes decision. (I actually disagree with it.) I’m just offering it as a data point suggesting that some people see some forms of code as a different type of art. That would seem relevant to the issues presented by Clive’s article.

  6. noah Says:

    Yes, that’s certainly true — and it’s difficult to imagine an analogue in previous artforms. Singing “fire” in a crowded theatre?

    Of course, the de-funding of the US National Endowment for the Arts often seemed argued on these “this art is too dangerous to leave lying around where a kid might misuse it” grounds. I sometimes feel insulted on behalf of writers everywhere that ours is the only artform considered so innocuous that the NEA is still allowed to fund its individual practitioners.

  7. michael Says:

    I prefer Seymour Papert’s view in his original Mindstorms book — i.e. that programming (and mathematics) constitute a separate language, which can only be learned by immersing oneself in it playfully, much as one learns French best by living in a French-speaking country. But it doesn’t seem like many educators have picked up on his idea.

    This view, that programming is really an expressive language best learned through immersion, was actually the basis for my Computation as an Expressive Medium course, so at least some educators are picking up on the idea. As discussed at some length in my last post about the course, there are still pedagogical issues to work out, but I think the premise and basic organization of the course works.

    Noah, regarding whether code is art, do you distinguish between the code itself (reading it on the screen) and what happens when the code runs? I confess I was a bit non-plussed when Linux won the .net prize at Ars Electronica in 1999. I have nothing against Linux, but it wasn’t clear to me that a big pile of operating system code is art. If you want to say that the art lies in the conceptual innovations in Linux, many (most?) of the conceptual innovations actually appeared in the original Unix in the 1970s, so should the first Unix have received the prize? Perhaps the art lies in the concept of open source software, but then perhaps GNU should have won the prize (or Multics, in which the entire kernel, plus all applications, was open to runtime modification by all users – this was the pre-any-security-model approach)? If the art lies in the elegance as an operating environment, then perhaps a Smalltalk environments (like Squeak) should have won?

    Code is often positioned as conceptual art – this particuarly makes sense given that many early conceptual pieces consisted of injunctions to the viewer, and code is certainly an injunction. But as conceptual work, code-art often seems to be a one-liner (e.g. fork bombs) – after the initial ba-dum dum tsshhh, there’s nothing more to think or say about the piece.

    In my own Expressive AI practice, I consider coding an essential part of the process of art making (inherently part of the construction of meaning), but I don’t hold the lines of code themselves up as art. The closest I come to this is in a piece like Terminal Time, where I claim that the AI architecture itself is part of the concept of the work (though the architecture is different than lines of code).

  8. Ian Bogost Says:

    More later… but before I forget, I think that the entries in the International Obfuscated C Code Contest is certainly an example of the importance of both the code on the screen and what happens when it runs, as well as the interaction between these two modalities. Among my favorites is poot poot.

    Espen also makes this distinction between “texton” and “scripton” in Cybertext. The problem with this is that (IMHO) there has been an assumption in IF that there is a more stable separation between these two categories than I think there really is.

  9. Ian Bogost Says:

    Sorry, here’s the correct link to David Lowe’s Poot Poot.

    Apollinaire would be proud.

  10. noah Says:

    Yes, now that the Prix Ars Electronica has gone to Linux, I propose that the next Nobel Prize for Literature go to the Iraqi Governing Council for their draft constitution.

    But seriously. When an art prize is awarded to work not intended as art, I think we’re to understand that it is the act of prize-giving itself that is the (conceptual) art in play.

    I’m of the opinion that both what code does at runtime and how it is written can be understood as artistic undertakings. Philetoaster certainly seemed to view both the innovation at execution and the elegance of the coding as part of his like-art undertaking.

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