Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gödel, Escher, Bach

In the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carrol, author Douglas Hofstadter refers to great works of logic, art and music as three aspects of a central essence, different expressions flowing from a common source.

It strikes me as interesting that lot of the great hackers are also fairly accomplished musicians, to one degree or another. Quite a few of the engineers I know and respect happen to be quite musically talented. It may not be mere coincidence, either.

Of course there are plenty of good programmers out there who never took up a musical instrument. However, I've begun to see the musician/hackers and the pure technicians differently.

The technician is the person who is fascinated with technology. They actually like complicated things, and figuring out what makes them work. They get a sense of accomplishment from having mastered a particularly difficult piece of software, much like solving a puzzle. They've probably built several computers from spare parts and are constantly upgrading their various electronic gadgets with the latest technology.

On the other hand, Musician/hackers are fascinated with creating things, and see technology as a way to express themselves. They're less likely to be captivated by the latest high-performance video card or Java SDK. Whatever allows them to get to work immediately creating things, and gives them the greatest range of artistic license, is what they like. They don't want to make things that are complex, they want to make things that are elegant.

Technology irks me most of the time, because it tends to be artless. A collection of functionality that is no greater than the sum of its parts. Musician / hackers don't just want to build programs that do things, they want to build programs that do things beautifully. I realized this when I began to notice the similarities between composing music and writing computer programs.

There are cases when the artist is needed. Chances are, the undergrad who just created the latest most-popular web application software is one of these. Unfortunately, there is a downside. Artists, particularly musicians, are hard to get along with. They especially don't get along well with other musicians. This is because they want control over what they see as the creative process. Suppose someone had gone up to Leonardo da Vinci when he was painting the Mona Lisa, and said, "You got the smile crooked!" Or if someone had insisted Bach write his Brandenburg concertos featuring the bagpipes. Can you imagine? Such is the indignation of the musician / hacker when told he must conform to such-and-such a dictum.

Artists work best when there aren't so many people telling them how to create their artwork. As a result, they're more likely to enjoy working alone or in a small group, but they might also be more likely to create something elegant.

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