Ethan Fast

Programmers Can Be Artists

07 March, 2012 -- Menlo Park, CA

In an earlier post, I suggested that the ability to program computers encourages rational mental models. That’s far from its only perk. Coderacy also heightens your artistic potential.

An artist is constrained by his or her medium of expression. A painter, no matter how skilled, cannot construct moving images with her paints and brushes. A filmmaker, no matter how hard she tries, cannot elicit the subtle, internal effects of point of view and tone of thought available to a novelist. Yet a novelist, in words, cannot render the rich and vibrant images of a movie or a painting. Each medium has certain tradeoffs.

Coderacy opens up a new world of artistic expression — literally. Art is nothing more than inspired information, and computers are general information processing frameworks. This makes art accessible to computation. Computers blend the worlds of the painter, the filmmaker, and the novelist. Disparate art forms can mix and mingle.

Yet coderacy doesn’t just allow the old art forms to mix, it opens up new possibilities. For most people, art has traditionally been a passive affair. I read a novel alone, but when a story instills in me questions, I cannot hold a conversation with my book. I may watch a movie with friends, and perhaps we even talk about it, but we cannot converse directly with the medium itself. Computers change the rules of this game. Utterly.

Consider that certain respectable philosophers suggest we live inside a computer simulation, and that they are taken seriously1. They haven’t been mocked into oblivion for one simple reason: such an idea is theoretically possible. In the limit, computation enables the kind of world-building of which a filmmaker or novelist can only dream2.

So what’s the upper bound for the artistic potential of a programmer? Godhood. When you construct a virtual world, you get to play the deity. To get there you have to solve a whole host of logistical problems, and overcome incredible resource constraints. But still, it sounds rather appealing, no?

Of course we aren’t even close to achieving such potential, but you can see the signs of our slow, upward progression. Video games — a simple form of world-bulding — have become more complex over time, and research into virtual worlds has become ever more popular. Yet truly artistic computation remains in its early years.

I look forward to seeing what comes next.

  1. As seriously as any modern philosophers are taken. 

  2. Of both the interactive and passive varieties. You might choose to interact with your virtual world, but for a sufficiently complex world, you might also choose to watch it like a television show.