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Lunch Break

September 23, 2011

The artifacts designed by programmers are not material objects; at most they are abstractions capturing some desired essence of their material analogs. But the habits of thought of these programmers are habits first cultivated through embodied experience in the material world. As Christopher Kelty characterizes them, ‘Geeks live in specific ways in time and space. They are not just users of technology, or a “network society,” or a “virtual community,” but embodied and imagining actors’ (Kelty, 2008: 77). It is this embodiment, the specific ways of living in time and space common to all humans, which ultimately provides the meanings – functional and aesthetic alike – of source code.

More generally, programmers’ own accounts of their activities and experiences (e.g., Lammers, 1986/2006; Oram & Wilson, 2007) are replete with terms like ‘balance,’ ‘flow,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘flexible,’ which are terms based, however unconsciously, on human embodied reality. That is, these accounts are drawn, ultimately, from the fact that human beings have material bodies that move through time and space. This is a generally well-known fact, though one historically discounted in studies not only of programming but of human cognition construed most broadly.

beauty is not just a characteristic of an object; it is a felt experience. This may play out in all manner of domains and modalities. For instance, Johnson (2007) proposed that music is a ‘presentation and enactment of felt experience’ (238): the tension that is felt in music is possible through the listener’s engagement as they experience their own bodily sensations of tension. The identification of a creative artifact or an everyday happening as eliciting or enacting a felt experience could warrant an exclamation of beauty. Even negative responses, such as anger and disgust (Silvia & Brown, 2007), qualify as aesthetic due to their embodied nature: the valuation of an object as disgusting is felt as a gustatory response in the beholder.

Code may appear to some to be among the most ‘linguaform and propositional’ modes of contemporary human expression and, thus, completely unsuitable for attaching completely different forms of meaning. But, as we have shown, the development of modern programming depends absolutely on a complex scaffolding of metaphor and non-propositional meaning drawn from the roots of embodied human experience. It is this accretion of meanings that form the basis, and provide the significance, of aesthetic judgments of code.

– S. Dexter, M. Dolese, A. Seidel, A. Kozbelt, ‘On the Embodied Aesthetics of Code’, Culture Machine. vol 12. (2011)

I’ve been asked before to square my mathematical pseudo-Platonism with my belief that man’s incarnate nature is fundamental to his being. I think one possible answer looks like this: mathematical things are real things, but due to our limitations we only feel their beauty and realize their essence by analogy to our embodied state and our physical surroundings.

But of course I disagree with that! For starters, I tend to think that the interrelationships, especially the interdependencies and constraints, between mathematical things and physical things are complex and bidirectional. But more importantly, essential to the experience (or at least to my experience) of mathematical beauty are the sudden realizations of simplicity*, economy, and necessity. Simplicity and economy are, of course, physical concepts too. But I’m not enough of a natural law guy to think that anything remotely analogous to logical necessity inheres to macroscopic physical forms (the farthest you will push me on this is to here. Really. I will die on this hill). Thus, at least a part of our experience of mathematical beauty is something with no physical analogue (or at least no human-scale physical analogue that we actually experience, depending on your views on the Standard Model).

But this is weird! How do we do that? The relevant comparison here seems to be experiences of a directly religious nature, but even those tend to get reported as feeling ‘like’ something physical. And that’s what we would expect if our incarnation is intrinsic. Hence I contain contradiction. But fortunately, I am vast.

*There’s something beautiful, too, about the pointlessly non-simple. I’m a sucker for flying buttresses and rococo ornamentation, and these have their mathematical equivalents. This may be instructive.

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