Romancing the App

Commodore Basic on a C64

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve always been fond of programming.

When I was a kid, we learned to program on a Commodore 64 in BASIC… When I moved into junior high, we learned Microsoft’s BASIC language, and I remember being amazed at the possibilities of coding. Living on a steady diet of sci-fi novels, I imagined computers and programs as the ultimate answer to any sort of labour we would find too boring or time-consuming. Math and it’s subsidiaries are the first and best example of how we would let computers help us… but the burgeoning fields of video games made me dream of coding levels and monsters as a career.

This, of course, was before we’d heard of the Internet.

Fast-forward to today, where I’m drafting this post in a coffee shop that pours out free wi-fi as an attractor for business. (I’m on my second americano and have enjoyed a breakfast here, so it’s working on me.) Sitting next to me is a gentleman who has both an iPhone and an iPad, and is referencing both of them constantly. I follow numerous blogs and twitter feeds daily, and consume most of my entertainment through the computer. Our computers are no longer fancy calculators, they are the ubiquitous method of entertainment, communication, and daily business.

In that bygone youth, a programmer seemed like a gifted mathematician (which is still true) but not much more. Now, developers of things like Facebook and Twitter seem like rock star composers, digital Beethovens with symphonies that we all use daily. Many of us consider programming like an inscrutable enchantment that can’t be decoded or explained; we let the magic happen but absolve ourselves of looking under the hood.

I have a few friends who are programmers, and I’ve been getting back into coding a little bit myself, and it reminds me of that mystique I used to ascribe to programmers and inventors when I was small. Building something from the ground floor, testing and developing it, and watching it work as you designed, has a sense of victory. (Even at my current level, where the programs are very small and minor.) The science and technique of coding are a fascinating escape from the intuition of my arts career.

One of my favourite moments in the first Iron Man movie is the design sequence, where he’s building his new suit, having successes and failures as part of the process. This speaks to the drama and thrill of creation, though it’s clearly more exciting to build a futuristic suit of armour than to code a little app that prints HELLO WORLD beneath the command line.

This appreciation for well-built things goes beyond computer programs and robotic suits, though. I have the same respect for anything that has a clarity of design, and likewise feel frustrated when I’m forced to use something that lacks a clear design. I recently watched the movie HELVETICA, and enjoyed the philosophical discussions and debate about something that seems so simple; how to represent letters.

So as I work on my little programs, hoping to develop that knowledge into bigger projects, I also have a sense of pride in joining a cabal of developers who make something from nothing. As a writer, the idea of making something happen through language appeals deeply. It is as though the compiler is the audience; if I’m clear in my communication, everything’s fine, but if I fail, I will quickly be told that I’ve got an error in my process. It’s a platonic ideal of communication; either it works or it doesn’t.

It’s exciting to be getting back into programming, exciting to reconnect with a youthful romance, and find it just as exciting today as back then, staring into the light of a Commodore 64.
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