Programming is Performance Art

I heard this idea years ago (and naturally, can’t remember where), but it’s been in my mind ever since: programming is performance art. I’m not talking about the act of programming per se (although that could also be considered a performance), but that the result of programming is performance art.

Chances are, the things you and I program today won’t exist as programs in even just a few years. OS APIs, platforms, dev tools, even hardware, all continuously change, so much so that today’s apps will soon enough start to rot. It’s hard to use a piece of software unchanged for more than 5 years; more than 10 is almost impossible.

Software is not a medium that preserves itself. Old software is best preserved in writing, pictures, and movies (media whose own digital formats are still subject to rot, but it seems at least less so), but rarely can you directly execute the software itself. You can watch a video of Doug Engelbart’s oNLine System but you can’t play with the software itself (thankfully you can play with a Xerox PARC Smalltalk system, though).

There are some workarounds, but they’re rare. Writing for the web browser seems to be a good way at achieving some degree of longevity (Javascript in browsers seems to be quite stable, but maybe the dev tools aren’t). Writing and maintaining one or more layers of virtual machines seems another route, although I worry that’s just shifting the problem down a level of abstraction. I’m sure there are other solutions (ship the platform with the app?), but these are exceptions: the way software exists today is temporary.

The main way to prevent software from rotting, it seems, is to maintain it: update it so that it continues to work as the platforms supporting them change underneath. In this sense, though, it’s not the same software you started with, as it’s continuously changing. You can’t stand in the same river twice, they say.

It seems this is the way software is meant to be: a thing that exists, for a time. Software is not a book or a painting, software is a Broadway matinée or a parade. It may happen more than once, it may go by the same name, but every time it’s different.

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