Programming as Pop Culture

The “programming is pop culture” quote has been doing the rounds from a 2004 interview with Alan Kay in terms of the debate on the use of craft as a metaphor for development. Here’s a recap:

…as computing spread out much, much faster than educating unsophisticated people can happen. In the last 25 years or so, we actually got something like a pop culture, similar to what happened when television came on the scene and some of its inventors thought it would be a way of getting Shakespeare to the masses. But they forgot that you have to be more sophisticated and have more perspective to understand Shakespeare. What television was able to do was to capture people as they were.

On the face of it this is a snotty quote from someone who feels overlooked; but then I am exactly one of those unsophisticated people who entered a democratised medium and is now rediscovering the past!

As a metaphor though in trying analyse how programmers talk and think about their work and the way that development organisations organise what they do then the idea that programming is pop culture is powerful, relevant and useful.

I don’t necessarily think that pop culture is necessarily derogatory. However in applying it to programming I think that actually you have to accept that it is negative. Regular engineering for example doesn’t discuss the nature of its culture, it is much more grounded in reality, the concrete and stolen sky as Locke puts it.

Architecture though, while serious, ancient and storied is equally engaged in its own pop culture. After all this is the discipline that created post-modernism.

There are two elements to programming pop culture that I think are worth discussing initially: fashion and justification by existence.

A lot of things exist in the world of programming purely because they are possible: Brainfuck, CSS versions of the Simpsons, obfuscated C. These are the programming equivalent of the Ig Nobles, weird fringe activities that contribute little to the general practice of programming.

However ever since the earliest demoscene there has been a tendency to push programming to extremes and from there to playful absurdity. These artifacts are justified through existence alone. If they have an audience then they deserve to exist, like all pop culture.

Fashion though is the more interesting pop culture prism through which we can investigate programming. Programming is extremely faddish in the way it adopts and rejects ideas and concepts. Ideas start out as scrappy insurgents, gain wider acceptance and then are co-opted by the mainstream, losing the support of their initial advocates.

Whether it is punk rock or TDD the patterns of invention, adoption and rejection are the same. Little in the qualitative nature of ideas such as NoSQL and SOA changes but the idea falls out of favour usually at a rate proportional to the fervour with which it was initially adopted.

Alpha geeks are inherently questors for the new and obscure, the difference between them and regular programmers is their guru-like ability to ferret out the new and exciting before anyone else. However their status and support creates an enthusiasm for things. They are tastemakers, not critics.

Computing in general has such fast cycles of obsolescence that I think its adoption of pop culture mores is inevitable. It is difficult to articulate a consistent philosophical position and maintain it for years when the field is in constant churn and turmoil. Programmers tend to attach to concrete behaviour and tools rather than abstract approaches. In this I have sympathy for Alan Kay’s roar of pain.

I see all manner of effort invested in CSS spriting that is entirely predicated on the behaviour of HTTP 1.1 and which will all have to be changed and undone when the new version HTTP changes file downloading. Some who didn’t need the micro-optimisation in initial download time will have better off if they ignored the advice and waiting for the technology to improve.

When I started programming professional we were at the start of a golden period of Moore’s Law where writing performant code mainframe-style was becoming irrelevant. Now at the end of that period we still don’t need to write performant code, we just want easy ways to execute it in parallel.

For someone who loves beautiful, efficient code the whole last decade and a half is just painful.

But just as in music, technical excellence doesn’t fill stadiums. People go crazy for terrible but useful products and to a lesser degree for beautiful but useless products.

We rediscover the wisdom of the computer science of the Sixties and Seventies only when we are forced to in the quest to find some new way to solve our existing problems.

Understanding programming as pop culture actually makes it easier to work with developers and software communities than trying to apply an inappropriate intellectual, academic, industrial or engineering paradigms. If we see the adoption, or fetishism, of the new as a vital and necessary part of deciding on a solution then we will not be frustrated with change for its own sake. Rather than scorning over-engineering and product ivory towers we can celebrate them as the self-justifying necessities of excess that are the practical way that we move forward in pop culture.

We will not be disappointed in the waste involved in recreating systems that have the same functionality implemented in different ways. We will see it as a contemporary revitalisation of the past that makes it more relevant to programmers now.

We will also stop decrying things as the “new Spring” or “new Ruby on Rails”. We can still say that something is clearly referencing a predecessor but we see the capacity for the homage to actually put right the flaws in its ancestor.

Pop culture isn’t a bad thing. Pop culture in programming isn’t a bad thing. But it is a very different vision of our profession that the one we have been trying to sell ourselves, but as Kay says maybe it better captures who we really are.


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