Syntax and Sage

A few years ago, I read something Toni Morrison wrote about the first sentence in Song of Solomon. She detailed how each word was picked carefully in a way that sets up the rest of the story.  She wrote two pages about this sentence, and it was clear that she could have written many more.  I remember feeling something I had felt throughout the novel: that it expressed so much meaning in so little space.

I think programmers are particularly sensitive to this sort of beauty.  It goes to the heart of what we do.  Our programming languages give us the ability to express complex ideas compactly, and this is what allows us to write powerful programs in a reasonable amount of time.  In many cases, it is what allows us to write them at all.  It is in its poetry that programming has its power.

But programs are different than poems, at least on the surface, in the way they achieve their density of meaning.  Programs are concise and precise, while poems are concise and ambiguous.  We can infer several meanings from the same line of poetry, because it is written to let us do so.  The poet gives us a framework, to which we can add our own meaning.

Or, as Jay-Z puts it, more concisely, “I tell you half the story, the rest you fill it in.”

Some artists take this idea a step further.  When you buy a Sol LeWitt piece, you don’t buy a completed drawing.  Instead you buy a piece of paper that says something like: “Using a black, hard crayon, draw a twenty-inch square.  Divide this square into one inch squares.  Within each one inch square, draw nothing, or draw a diagonal straight line from corner to corner …”  Songs by the musician Cornelius Cardew give instructions to the chorus that look like: “Sing this line of text 3 times, each time for a length of a breath, on a note of your choosing.”

In these pieces, the artist, through a series of instructions, both tells a story of what the piece could look like and defines a social process to makes that story a reality.  The artist builds a framework, and the community fills it in.

And now this starts to look, again, like software.

A program, we must remember, is both a programmer’s series of instructions to the computer, and the resulting program’s series of instructions to its users.  The instructions to the computer are defined by syntax, while the instructions to the users are defined by user interfaces.

In well-designed software, the instructions to the user tell a clear story of the world the programmer is trying to achieve, though the best ones tend to maintain some ambiguity.  They tell a user to communicate publicly in 140 characters, or to edit an encyclopedia entry, but they don’t specify which characters or which entry.  The magic happens when a well-told story meets an imaginative set of users.

And so, the art of software becomes the art of coming up with a beautiful story of a world that could exist, and then telling that story in code (half of the story anyway) to the right set of users.

I notice that this art, as I’ve defined it, is broader than the traditional art of programming.  It is available to those who have the freedom to choose the software they write, who see their task not only to write code, but to come up with a beautiful story and find the right set of users.  It is available, in other words, to the entrepreneur.

To such people there is tremendous power, for programs are more direct than poetry.  They act on the world.  They give a framework not just for human thought, but for human behavior.  The stories that these programmers tell, if they tell them well, are likely to become realities.

It is important, therefore, to be thoughtful, to be wise, to be kind, to tell the stories that, when they become realities, will help to heal society.

This is a difficult job, and not one that entrepreneurs should need to take on alone.  In most arts, there have been curators and editors, who have had a point of view, who have defined movements, who have nurtured artists not just based on their likelihood for success, but based on a shared story, a shared vision for the world.  Our museums may play this role, but I think, in this realm, it would be a more natural job for our venture capitalists.

They, too, must tell beautiful stories.