kai_krause's picture
Software Pioneer; Philosopher; Author, A Realtime Literature Explorer
Software is merely a Performance Art

It is a charming concept that humans are in fact able "to change their mind" in the first place. Not that it necessarily implies a change for the better, but at least it does have that positive ring of supposing a Free Will to perform this feat at all. Better, in any case, to be the originator of the changing, rather than having it done to you, in the much less applaudable form of brain washing.

For me, in my own life as I passed the half-century mark, with almost exactly half the time spent in the US and the other in Europe, in-between circling the globe a few times, I can look back on what now seems like multiple lifetimes worth of mind changing.

Here then is a brief point, musing about the field I spent 20 years in: Computer Software. And it is deeper than it may seem at first glance.

I used to think "Software Design" is an art form.

I now believe that I was half-right:
it is indeed an art, but it has a rather short half-life: 
Software is merely a performance art!

A momentary flash of brilliance, doomed to be overtaken by the next wave, or maybe even by its own sequel. Eaten alive by its successors. And time...

This is not to denigrate the genre of performance art: anamorphic sidewalk chalk drawings, Goldsworthy pebble piles or Norwegian carved-ice-hotels are admirable feats of human ingenuity, but they all share that ephemeral time limit: the first rain, wind or heat will dissolve the beauty, and the artist must be well aware of its fleeting glory.

For many years I have discussed this with friends that are writers, musicians, painters and the simple truth emerged: one can still read the words, hear the music and look at the images....

Their value and their appeal remains, in some cases even gain by familiarity: like a good wine it can improve over time. You can hum a tune you once liked, years later. You can read words or look a painting from 300 years ago and still appreciate its truth and beauty today, as if brand new. Software, by that comparison, is more like Soufflé: enjoy it now, today, for tomorrow it has already collapsed on itself. Soufflé 1.1 is the thing to have, Version 2.0 is on the horizon.

It is a simple fact: hardly any of my software even still runs at all!

Back in 1982 I started with a highschool buddy in a garage in the Hollywood hills. With ludicrous limitations we conjured up dreams: three-dimensional charting, displaying sound as time-slice mountains of frequency spectrum data, annotated with perspective lettering... and all that in 32K of RAM on a 0.2Mhz processor. And we did it... a few years later it fed 30 people.

The next level of dreaming up new frontiers with a talented tight team was complex algorithms for generating fractals, smooth color gradients, multi layer bumpmapped textures and dozens of image filters, realtime liquid image effects, and on and on... and that too, worked and this time fed over 300 people. Fifteen products sold many millions of copies - and a few of them still persist to this day, in version 9 or 10 or 11... but for me, I realized, I no longer see myself as a software designer - I changed my mind.

Today, if you have a very large task at hand, one that you calculate might take two years or three... it has actually become cheaper to wait for a couple of generation changes in the hardware and do the whole thing then - ten times faster.

In other words: sit by the beach with umbrella drinks for 15 months and then finish it all at once with some weird beowulf-cluster of machinery and still beat the original team by leaps and bounds. At the start, all we were given was the starting address in RAM where video memory began, and a POKE to FC001101 would put a dot on the screen. Just one dot.

Then you figured out how to draw a line. How to connect them to polygons. How to fill those with patterns. All on a screen of 192x128, ( which is now just "an icon")

Uphill in the snow, both ways.

Now the GPUs are blasting billions of pixels per second and all they will ask is "does it blend?" Pico, Femto, Atto, Zepto, Yocto cycles stored in Giga, Tera, Peta, Exa, Zetta, Yotta cells.

I rest my case about those umbrella drinks.

Do I really just drop all technology and leave computing ? Nahh. QuadHD screens are just around the corner, and as a tool for words, music and images there are fantastic new horizons for me. I am more engaged in it all than ever — alas: the actual coding and designing itself is no longer where I see my contribution. But the point is deeper than just one mans path:

The new role of technology is a serious philosophical point in the long range outlook for mankind. Most decision makers world wide, affecting the entire planet, are technophobes, luddites and noobs beyond belief. They have no vision for the potential, nor proper respect for the risks, nor simple estimation of the immediate value for quality of life that technology could bring. 
Maybe one can change their mind?

I remembered that I once wrote something about this very topic... 
and I found it: 

I changed my mind mostly about changing my mind: 
I used to be all for 'being against it', 
then I was all against 'being for it', 
until I realized: thats the same thing....never mind. 
It's a 'limerickety' little thing from some keynote 12 years ago, but...see.... it still runs : )