Open Source as an Ant Farm
Where Open Source is concerned, hyperbole from the digerteratti hype meisters proliferates nearly as quickly as the hyperlinks they hype. Let's face it -- Clapton has been deposed; Linus Torvalds is now God. And those pundits shouting his divinity the loudest can^Òt even tell a stack register from a walrus. I wonder if Jesus had the same problem?
This constant lionizing of Linus is getting on my nerves. I mean, he is probably a great guy and all (if you know what I mean), but a great man? Usually you wait until people are safely dead (and unable to further embarrass themselves) before heaping those kinds of laurels on their heads. If I was he I would start worrying about that strange human proclivity for taking our living idols down a notch once in a while. Or even nailing them to a tree. Not to mention burning at the stake, drawing and quartering and satirizin g on TV.
But I knew things were getting ridiculous this last week when I saw three different weblogs pointing to the same dumb article using variations on the same dumb caption: 'Open Source as an Art Form' . I mean come on, just because a bunch of nutzoid art types gives Torvalds an award for Linux doesn't mean that an operating system or a development model is art! Yeesh!
Not that I don't think of programming as art mind you. After all I am a programmer myself and I often like to compare what I do to the creation of art. A kind of raw industrial art perpetuated underneath the digital world by Morlo cks like myself while the Eloi cavort on the surface, unaware of the immense complexity (and fragility) of their world. In other words code is art, but it is exclusionist art. No more approachable to the everyday person than a Jackson Pollock work. And twice as incomprehensible!
After all if everyone could do it, it wouldn't be art, would it? It would be just another craft. And if everyone could appreciate good code the way I appreciate the Impressionists then it would be 'Classical' (read 'Dead') Art. Not something alive and thriving. Bubbling and fermenting and making funny smells the way the process of hacking out good code does.
But, you say, it is being appreciated just as you would like! After all, isn't that what the award was all about?
Well, no frankly. Not even close. In my opinion if you can't write good code you can't appreciate good code. At the most you can only appreciate the end result, the compiled program. And, while some programs are definitely 'art' in their own right, many others cannot be described as such based on their even visible-to-the-user external features. And Linux, while a work of art in my programmer eyes, is really just a kernel. A piece of code that, if everything is working right, the user will never see directly. Some of my peers would agree with this. Some will not. As always opinions are all over the map...
One poster on Slashdot tried to have it both ways when he opined "Which part of the programming is the art? Is it the code, neatly formatted, with creative comments and clever algorithms or is it the finished product? When you look at 'art' in a museum, all you see is the finished product . . . So which is the art? The code or the program? I personally think it's the program, and beautiful programs usually have very nice/efficient/clean code."
While another lamented "When the New Yorker compares Open Source to the Algonquin roundtable, the seventh seal will be complete and Microsoft will be free to release Windows 2000."
And another asks "So how is this art going to be displayed? Will art galleries have framed printouts of C code, or will they just give out Linux CDs?"
How indeed? Well, if you read the dumb article I mentioned above you will find the author's thesis is that neither the source code nor the compiled Linux kernel code is the issue, rather the art in question is the Open Source development model that built it! He bases this proposition the following facts:
- China Youth Daily used the Microsoft consternation over Open Source for propaganda purposes.
- The Open Source development model (as described by Eric Raymond) is about cooperation and participation.
- Indian Potlatches were about cooperation and participation.
- The Surrealists did some stuff that involved cooperation and participation.
- A lot of twentieth century art uses 'quotation' (like painting soup cans or sampling 1970's Rock and Roll for Rap music) and 'quotation' is kind of like Open Source, isn't it?
- John Myatt's art forgery scam was kind of like 'quotation' too! And it was kind of like art as well
- When some people share a pseudonym to do wacky performance art, and then someone else uses the same nom de plume to crack a web site or to write an on-line 'tag-team' novel you have cooperation and participation and quotation and propaganda all rolled into one, with an Internet connection as a sweetener!
My first thought on reading the article was "Huh?" Then I reread and listed the salient points above and reiterated "Huh?"
Clearly Harvey Blume isn't a programmer. If he was I wouldn't trust him to code a 'for' loop based on his demonstrated grasp of simple logic. Nonetheless if he had simply stated that Open Source programming with the Bazaar model is 'Art' because he says it was art I would have much less to quibble with. After all art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Only he didn't. Instead he chose to defend his allegation using arguments that indicate he doesn't understand anything about the subject. In other words, I cannot say Mr. Blume is wrong, but I can state with near certainty that he is the wrong person to make the claim. He might be right, but for the wrong reasons.
So, assuming you can call a development model an art form -- how do you hang it on the wall? I would argue that it is already there. The main point about Open Source is that it is (wait for it) . . . OPEN! Duh^Å Unlike 'Closed' development the source code is available for all to see. And often the discussions between developers are available as well, archived on one list server or another. In the Internet sense you can't get up against the wall any more that that!
But what does the average art lover see hanging there? Open Source as an Art Form? I think not. More like Open Source as an Ant Farm! At most they will get a glimpse of we scurrying workers as we toil underground. But they will never, ever understand. As I said before, I am OK with that.
Non programmer types can present art awards for Linux or even Sendmail if they like, but it doesn't signify to me. In my opinion these awards mean nothing until they are given by someone who understands why the jargon file definition of 'Recursion' is funny. Until then I would rather they just threw money. Wouldn't you?