Sometimes I forget that technology is art, but recently I was reminded. I don’t claim to be any kind of tech guru, but I’ve had the great fortune to be very close to some exceptionally smart, tech-minded people. This is about them, and why I love them.
I was helping my husband pack up some servers to ship out. There wasn’t much for me to do except tape the boxes closed and make sure they got safely out the door, but I’d observed the work and care Nimby put into the machines as he checked each box one last time before sending them off to the world. The way he hovered over them with a mixture of creative love and workmanlike concern reminded me very much of myself fretting over the final draft of a book. That’s when it hit me: This is his art. These weren’t just some hunks of electronics we were shipping out, they were servers that my husband and his cohorts thoughtfully crafted from an idea into a list of part numbers and codes, into a machine that serves a very specific purpose in a very efficient way.
I don’t know if Nimby feels the same way about his art as I feel about mine. After all, what I do is very different from what he does, but I would argue that all art serves one purpose — to express our alive-ness. Trees grow because they’re alive. We create, invent, discover, encounter, experience and learn with all our might because we are alive. He’s found something that drives his curiosity and joy, and he pursues it with all his heart. How could I not love that? He’s all curiosity and tinkering, and that’s art! And the fact that his art gets shared with the world through his job makes me really happy for him and a little bit jealous — but that’s a story for another day.
Of course he doesn’t use the word art for his work. Computer artists like to call themselves engineers, which sounds more dignified I guess. He calls himself a network engineer, and some people would use words like “hacker,” but I know that word has a very specific meaning in his mind (and in mine because of all the conversations we’ve had about it), so I’m sticking with “artist.”
Anyway, there’s a big difference between artists and engineers, but it has nothing to do with their medium of choice. I used to work with a lot of engineers who showed no passion whatsoever for their jobs, even though they were pretty good at them. They were not practicing artistry. They had no curiosity about what they were doing, no drive to constantly improve and innovate.
Just like with all the arts, an operating system or a computer network is not a work of art unless you make it that way. The difference is in the artist. You can choose to do things the same old way just for the sake of getting it done, or you can care about doing it better, you can make it beautiful, you can challenge yourself, you can change the world. It becomes art when you, the artist, give it that spark of inspiration and curiosity that only you can give it.