The politics of game death

Tubes of the world!

Programming as poetry — the song

For years, programmers have been arguing that writing code is oddly similar to writing poetry. In both cases, the idea is to write with the maximum compression possible — cramming the most amount of meaning and substance into a very short space. That’s why the best programmers are always praised for the elegance of their code — how spare and clean it is. It’s kind of like early modernist poetry, which tried to strip language down as far as possible, the epitome of which might be Ezra Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro”.

This comparison is not actually as fey and aesthetic as you might imagine: The question of the literary style of code is politically significant, insofar as there is a heated debate about whether a computer program would be protected by the U.S. courts as a form of speech. If you believe, as I do, that computer language has a literary style of its own, then it’s damn hard to explain why it shouldn’t be given free-speech protection. But many judges do not yet grok this, and maybe never will. I predict this fight will one day hit the Supreme Court in a big way, and have rather earthshattering implications for determining which programs can and can’t be written.

One guy who needs no convincing about the literary status of code is MJ Hibbert. He’s a U.K. musician who has written and recorded “Programming is a Poetry for our Time” — a totally deranged and hilarious song that makes my argument above, except wrapped in a trippy folk melody. You can download the song here, and view the lyrics here; they’re excerpted below:

Take a complicated idea

And make the underlying point of it clear

Compress it down to fit in memory

Now tell me what’s the difference

Between programming and poetry?

Programming is a poetry for our time
It’s a poetry for our time

Indenting every line
Sorted into stanzas so that you can find
Selected lines to quote or just a phrase to paste
Into the epics that live underneath
The Web and Word and Databases

Programming is a poetry for our time
It’s a poetry for our time

I wonder would Wordsworth have written in Perl?
Would Keats have used Notepad for HTML?
I reckon Byron would see
The irony
Of writing words to change the world that we
Can’t live without but no-one ever sees

I can’t imagine how surreal it is to be in a bar when he plays this thing.

(Thanks to Little Things for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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