February 19, 2015

Vital Beauty

From the introduction to Vital Beauty: Reclaiming Aesthetics In The Tangle of Technology and Nature, edited by Koke Brouwer, Arjen Mulder, and Lars Spuybroek:

The problem was not that we were alienated from our work, our products; it was that we lacked a sense of beauty, or that our sense of beauty was frustrated and obstructed. Marx could never turn his theory into a positive philosophy; he believed things would be fine once power relations were reversed and the means of production had changed hands. For Ruskin, what was crucial was those means of production themselves. For him, beauty was not only about the appearance of our products, but how they were made, of what materials, under what conditions, and for what price: in short, it was an all-out aesthetic system of values.

The argument from Ruskin’s Vital Beauty suggest that software is beautiful when it is happy and healthy and doing what it ought to do and what it wants to do, and that software is ugly when it is malformed or idle or repetitiously serving our simple needs. A tree waving in the wind is beautiful though not useful; the same tree cut down to bridge a river is useful but not beautiful.

There is not anything which causes so intense and tormenting a sense of ugliness as any scar, wound. monstrosity, or imperfection which seems inconsistent with the animal’s ease and health.