Like poetry, code describes the shape of the world.
“Code is poetry” is the tagline of WordPress, an open-source publishing application for the internet that is freely available to all. It is a fascinating piece of software that evolved from a simple blog engine to a fully fledged content management system. In the process, the team in charge of developing the source code managed to keep some simplicity at its core, but probably not enough. The software is now growing in complexity: its interface shows its inner convolutions, with more options, more menus, more everything. I would like to see less.
I’m very impressed by people who are able to express themselves efficiently: it inspires me, even if I remain realistic about my own abilities. Minimalism is an ideal that needs practice, and expressing an idea or a behaviour in the most efficient way requires constant effort.
Don’t get me wrong — I love WordPress for its potential to be used for almost any end purpose. On the other hand, I like to use something I fully understand, something I can clearly capture and analyse in my mind. It’s like the car in your garage: at some point in the past, a man could fix his car at the weekend, with the tools in his own toolbox. Now it’s almost impossible, as most of its parts require complex machinery simply to be removed and replaced, never mind rejigged or repaired. The electronic has forced the human touch out of the mechanical. I have always preferred bikes over cars and I think I always will.
Recently I contemplated a piece of software I created for Maison Martin Margiela some years ago: it was their first website. It was a very simple piece of code that referred to a directory in order to present text and images on the page. The website’s navigational structure was made up of simple folders containing other folders. One could drop a folder on a server, put a small application at the top and the site was ready to go. It was easy to maintain via standard FTP, easy to back up and easy to add to. The best thing about it was its simplicity, and hence its effectiveness.
Later, I developed this model with a CMS “box in a box”, using a more complex database system. It allowed elements to be placed within other elements, like Russian dolls. A set of rules came into effect with each such action: a series of images in a container is a gallery; multiple texts that go into one container become paragraphs; if I put text inside an image it’s a caption; if I put an image inside an image, the first is a thumbnail and the second is the hi res, and so on. I added special functions — the fact that I completely understood the system made it easy. I implemented an early version of what is now called Ajax after reading an article about it, and used it for a client’s video portfolio when a page wouldn’t reload. It was fast and beautifully simple.
The more features I added, of course, the more complexity I created: more rules, more possibilities. Rapidly, it made the software veeeerrrryyyy slow, and the whole idea was finally discarded for practical reasons. I started using WordPress, still in its infancy but with lots of potential: a brand-new adventure.
It’s only recently that I have looked back at the software I produced at that time. It has made me consider the influence that my tools had on my mind: on how I perceived information and organised it, not only on a computer, but also in real life. How one structures information, in one way or another, is how one makes choices and defines one’s world. The structure of information is an underlying interface that puts the world in place for us. If using WordPress has increased my productivity, it has also considerably restrained the flexibility with which I store, and perhaps process, information.
I always have a small notebook with me. It’s my brain backup: I write notes in it all the time, encoding reality in texts, schemas, numbers and drawings. This is my most resilient device so far. I number my notebooks and, once I’ve reached the last page, I store them in a metal box. Sometimes I get them out and read them again, and copy into my new notebook the old ideas I want to re-explore.
I often dream of its incorporeal counterpart: a sort of gigantic folder where I could store images, sounds, videos, texts, things I find in real life or on the internet. It would be neatly organised using tags, categories, time stamps and information I generate throughout the day. Part of it would be public and published online; part would remain private. This is how I attempt to use my computer every day, but so far it has only been disappointing.
- Since I wrote down those thoughts, Daniel invited me to join his effort building Curator which is probably the best creative tool for any visual thinker… WIRED described it recently as “Awesome Curating App Perfectly Mashes Up Pinterest, Evernote, and Instagram” — Give it a go!
- This text was initially published in Dapper Dan issue 7, and was titled “Code is Poetry”.