Artists, Developers, and The Deep Structures of The New World
Software is swallowing the world.
This is nothing new. From the moment human consciousness sprang into being, it has been trying to remake the world in its image. Consciousness is, after all, fundamentally a virtual reality, a space that exists where no space really is, where echoes and phantoms of reality may live out entirely new existences.
The first human consciousness looked out on the world, and began to absorb it. The mind quickly became inhabited by kingdoms and peoples and imaginary histories, and timelines of might-have-been versions of things it saw. The world colonized the mind, and then the mind expanded and began to colonize the world.
Writing was the first attempt to colonize reality. It took one mind’s creations, and created a space where they could live permanently, or launch themselves into the minds of others.
At the same time, music was allowing emotions to abstract themselves from one person, and begin to live in the spaces around and between societies. Folk songs became cultural reservoirs which thousands upon thousands of people poured themselves into, and in doing so, gave part of themselves to immortality.
Then there was acting and playwriting. The created worlds of the mind were beginning to emerge in a concrete form, temporarily possessing individuals to make their presence felt.
In recent times, photography, and then cinema, began to allow the virtual worlds to take on definition, broadcasting high-resolution versions of what humanity had previously only intuited. But realism is only one dimension of the advance.
Another is mobility. From radio to television to telephones to personal computers to iPhones and tablets, the virtual world has been making strong in-roads on our lives. And it’s getting stronger; every day, our virtual devices become better at getting us to glance down. And every time we do, we are back in their virtual domain.
The world is being consumed and remade by the virtual. Every industry, every area of interest to humans, is rapidly becoming an exercise in software design.
The bricks and mortar of this new world are software and communication. The functionality that is being built today will be the foundation of new worlds to come. The communication protocols will hold it all together.
But the most important thing being built isn’t the code itself. The code will be replaced over time. The most important things currently emerging are principles, standards, and best practices.
When I was young, I got the chance to walk through a petrified forest. The trees were fallen and cracked open, and I got to inspect the amazing insides of trees that had been totally replaced with stone. Particle by particle, everything inside the tree had leaked out, and minerals had been pulled in to replace it, in such a way that the stone was a perfect replica of the tree, bark and tree-rings and all.
Software is like that in a lot of ways. Pieces of it are removed and replaced over time, until eventually nothing of the original is left. What remains are the processes, the embedded ideology or intelligence that the developers encoded. The way each piece of code fit together, the way it interacts within itself and then with the outside world, emerges from a set of principles that the developers were operating by.
Occasionally the original principles were poorly conceived, and the entire software project has to be rewritten. This is usually painful, a pulling out of deeply rooted connections. Other times, the principles are so good that the original backbone of software may remain unchanged for a long, long time.
If someone wants to build long-lasting code, they may consciously choose to use the best, most expansive principles they can. And if someone discovers a useful enough principle, their creation may become embedded in the world forever.
These principles and best practices are rapidly evolving. But they are the deep structures of the world that will soon exist. Layer upon layer of software will echo their curvature, shaping the landscape of the coming reality.
We are building ourselves a virtual universe. Developers are the architects, the powerful mages that lay the foundations. But the world must also be filled, and every form of art and culture and expression is being called upon to fill it.
As the virtual world expands, it becomes a vacuum, sucking up any creation it comes into contact with. This is why social media has exploded - there is simply so much space that needs to be filled, almost any kind of content will do. But all other kinds of media are being pulled in too. And as they are pulled in, they are released from the constraints they operated under before.
This is why books and music and television and movies and photographs are all rapidly converging. They don’t fit together well, having started on opposite ends of the virtual universe, but as they are pulled out into the open (from the point of view of software), they are heading into each others’ territory very quickly.
Artists should stop thinking of themselves as workers in a particular medium. They should see themselves as fillers of virtual realities, and ones who will do so with any tool that comes to hand. We are not painters or writers or musicians. We are creators of worlds.
At the same time, we must think carefully about our medium. Media of all sorts are growing insignificant as they become just another part of the vast expanse of world-creation. Perhaps it is time to take up more powerful tools. Perhaps it is time to re-orient the way our tools speak into the world.
As the virtual world expands, I expect that people who tell facts will become less significant. Increasingly, we will simply be able to watch the facts we care about, as they happen. But those who create stories and who build meaning will be more important than ever. They will give us the directions to navigate by, and the blueprints for our future.