Art of coding

Rohit Gupta | Updated on August 22, 2014

Mirrored Mind: My Life in Lettersand Code Author: Vikram ChandraCategory: Non-fiction Publisher: Penguin Price: ₹499

An attempt to bridge computer code with classical poetics that is only as rich as your imagination

The bridge that connects computers and poetry is how both manipulate memory. A skilful poet arranges words to trigger continents buried deep beneath the ocean of collective consciousness. A good computer programmer makes efficient use of machine memory, and its physical architecture. Drawing on his own background as one of India’s finest novelists, Vikram Chandra begins by asking, “Can computer code be artistic?”

Across the world a fresh mingling of the arts and sciences is unfolding, that harks back to pre-Renaissance alchemy in Europe. It is a natural response to the unidimensional pursuit of specialisation into which the 20th century had thrown headlong some of its best minds. From the standpoint of Indian philosophy, Chandra has produced an interdisciplinary book that attempts to bridge the world of computer code with classical poetics of the subcontinent.

For the first four chapters of Mirrored Mind, however — you have no idea where the author is headed. Meanwhile, a brief memoir on Chandra’s little-known life as a part-time computer programmer in the US segues into a textbook explanation of how computers actually work, such as the mechanism of “logic gates” (which could have served better as an appendix). This is followed by a tour of the culture and politics of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the social role of Indian Institutes of Technology after independence, the shaping of Indian thought during the British Raj, and dynamics of gender in the sciences. These are important ideas in the history of Indian science, but presented in a somewhat awkward sequence.

The latter half of this meandering book is more cohesive in comparison, devoted to the finer aspects of classical Indian aesthetic philosophy. Apart from placing the Sanskrit linguistics of Panini as a precedent to computer programming, Chandra highlights two historic figures in particular — Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta. It is revealed through erudite devices how considerations of theatre and poetic technique by these two philosophers led to new theories about consciousness, which ultimately outlined an entire tantric cosmology. The cosmology of tantra also relates to a Matrix-like computer-mediated reality, suggests Chandra: “So the entire universe is within Chiti, and is an abhasa — usually translated as ‘appearance’, but I think better understood here as something like ‘simulation’. We are inside a giant Holodeck of consciousness, and what we think of as our own subjectivity is a wilfully contracted portion of Chiti itself.”

If this weren’t Chandra, and if the book weren’t replete with some great passages, one would brush it aside as new age mumbo jumbo. Some of the ideas are perilously close to Vedic revivalism — but Chandra tightropes his way through it safely. Ultimately, there are no answers provided, except a rich collection of hints and metaphors. As perhaps the first rumination on a scientific subject by an Indian literary figure of our time, the book is valuable. In India, because of the tendency towards specialisation, literary authors have stayed away from scientific commentary, and programmers have stuck to software development. Interdisciplinary activity is discouraged by academia and industry both, so Chandra’s book is a welcome arrival. However, considering the enormity of this issue, hints are not enough.

Over the past decades, India has churned out information technology professionals and computer science students by the truckloads. Armies of them work for software behemoths like Infosys or Wipro, trapped in a kind of cybernetic bureaucracy from which they can’t break free. How can they utilise their skills in a more artistic way, in a way that is culturally rewarding for all of us?

Take the example of a radical collective of programmers that emerged in the UK over the last decade, called “live coders”. As the name suggests, they consider computer coding a sort of live performance art. The raw code can be seen on a projected screen as they work, and the code simultaneously produces music and visuals. This is a form of performance art that has been made possible only by computers. It is both code and poetry. Many other innovations in human-computer interaction have emerged from these artists, such as ChucK — a programming language solely dedicated to networked music. Even computer games are considered a form of art.

Another similarity between Sanskrit poetry and computers merits mention — how the repetitive chanting of mantras is similar to the looping of subroutines in a computer algorithm. The chanting of a mantra produces a sonic reality through its echoes and reverberations; algorithmic loops create powerful forces under the impact of which the entire world’s social structure is still shaking.

Mirrored Mind offers only that to its discerning reader, an amplification by reflection, a book that is only as rich as your own imagination.

(Rohit Gupta writes Compasswallah, a blog about the history of science and mathematics)

Published on January 31, 2014

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