Of Software and Magic

This is an pretty old post from my blog, which has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. You might want to go back to the homepage to see some more recent stuff.

Lightning crackles through my hind-brain, adenosine receptors lighting up in sequence as caffeine molecules finish their long journey from the hillsides of South America to the grey mass of proteins from which spawn consciousness. My eyes open wider, and with them my mind. Fingers flicker and dance across the keys of mankind’s most arcane device. Thoughts, ideas, visions flash across my mind, patterns forming for just milliseconds. Then they explode through neural pathways, twisting and contorting muscles that touch keys across the tiny portion of the real world that is still required for man and machine to work in harmony. Then on again, electrical pulses once more, completing the journey from pattern in flesh to pattern in silicon.

In another time and place, perhaps I would have been a shaman, ingesting powders of strange jungle plants to achieve the same state beyond mere consciousness, the same ability to communicate with the world, that I now achieve with caffeine and a keyboard. For the creation of software is unlike any art or act of engineering that came before it, and at times it borders on magical.

The carpenter’s and the artist’s work both begin with an idea in their mind, but the end product of each one’s endeavour is a real, tangible object. What’s more, the carpenter’s chisel marks and the artist’s brush strokes become part of the work itself, forever a sign that human effort created it. But not so the magic of the programmer. We have minimised our tools as far as we can, allowing fingers to dash across keys as fast as our muscles allow, and still we yearn to do away with them entirely. Like the Chi to a T’ai Chi practicioner, the keyboard to us is a limitation on the speed we can translate thought into reality, and the more we minimise it, the more effective we are.

At the end of the craft of software, there is no finished item that can be picked up, examined for workmanship, burnt to ash. There is just a pattern of magnetic domains on a disk somewhere, an electromagnetic pattern the mirror twin of the electromagnetic pattern in a brain that spawned it. By using a strange tool and a bizarre language which few understand, we take the patterns in our heads and overlay them on the world as pure information, pure pattern-stuff.

And that, dear friends, is nothing more or less than the practice of magic.

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