In Pursuit of Elegance

I wrote this for the HASTAC Scholars’ forum on Critical Code studies, which I co-hosted in January. To see the post in its original context, click here.


One of the older jokes about programming states that every great programmer suffers from the following three sins: laziness, impatience, and hubris. Laziness makes you write the fewest lines of code necessary to accomplish a given task. Impatience means that your program will run as quickly as possible. And hubris compels you to create code that is as beautiful as you can make it. These three criteria – length, speed, and elegance – are the benchmark for evaluating code.

But what makes code elegant? One of the first things you learn in a programming class is that (in most languages) the computer will completely disregard any white space beyond the single space required to differentiate one part of the statement from another. However, in the next breath, your instructor adjures you to follow indentation guidelines and fill the eye space of your code with enough blank spaces to make a Scandinavian graphics designer drool. So your code ends up looking rather like an ee cummings poem with lots of random space, oddly placed capitalization, and sporadic punctuation.

Of course that is the perspective of someone who is not used to looking at code. The indentations draw the eye to nested components (loops, subroutines, etc), the capitalization signifies variables or other important components of the program, and the punctuation stands in for the myriad of mathematical and logical operators absent from a QWERTY keyboard.

I believe the fear Matt Kirschenbaum discusses above comes in part from the visual strangeness of code. It just looks weird and impenetrable. The mantra embraced by too many programmers of “It was hard to write, it should be hard to read” doesn’t help the situation either. Academics don’t like feeling stupid (especially once they’ve left their graduate student days behind them) and the seeming impenetrability of programming syntax makes them feel that way.

Of course it’s not the academic who is stupid, it’s the computer. People who have little experience with how computers actually work often miss this critical distinction. The “thinking machine” does not think. Like Mark Sample’s now lost haiku generator, the computer has no vocabulary we do not give it. And as Mark Marino points out, as far as the computer is concerned, even those words are completely devoid of meaning. This gives the programmer an extraordinary amount of power, but within the constraints that everything must be broken down into components so simple even a computer can work with them.

My hope for Critical Code Studies, a field I have only just become acquainted while helping to create this forum, is that by analyzing the thick textuality of code and the highly social, highly contingent environments in which code is generated, we can find better ways of explaining code to those who are afraid of it.

As a historian of Early American Diplomacy who spends much of her day designing and building databases, websites, and data visualizations I find myself constantly trying to allay the fears of my less technically trained colleagues. However, there are crucial connections between the work of programmers and humanists. I think the link may lie with aesthetics.

This brings us back to laziness, impatience, and hubris. Speed and brevity were virtues of necessity in the early days of computer science. Early computers had very little memory or processing power. Even an efficient program could take hours, an inefficient one weeks. Also if the program was too long it could not be entered on a punch card. The vast amount of memory and processing power on even a budget home computer have made these restrictions all but obsolete except in the case of very small devices or very large data sets. Yet these criteria continue to have great psychological power, not unlike a great professor’s ability to reduce the complexity of a historical event to the essential points her students will remember, or the identification of previously unrecognized leitmotifs which draws an author’s body of work into a new stylistic whole.

The virtue of elegance comes straight from mathematics, which to me suggests that it is built into the very fabric of the universe. We all recognize beauty in some form. Sometimes the best way to understand a foreign culture is to determine what they value as beautiful and find in it the beauty that they perceive. The elegance of code is bound up in structure, process, and product. The better we can explain it, the more accessible code will become.


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