The legacy of software as art

This post from Andy Brice, via Simon Wolf on ADN, makes a nice complement to my recent post on software as an art form:

“My grandfather worked most of his life as a stonemason. Much of that time was spent restoring the ruin of a Bishop’s palace in Sherborne. His work is still visible long after his death. The work of the stonemasons who built the palace is still visible after more than 8 centuries. How long after you stop programming is any of your work going to last?”

Not long, of course, and I’m not sure this is solvable. The best we can do is make sure our software runs on systems as long as possible, and to preserve the rest in screenshots and videos.

There are echoes of this theme in my post on permanence last year too, but for writing:

“Nothing lasts on the internet. I could write on my weblog for years and the next day get hit by a bus. The domain expires, the posts are lost, and it doesn’t matter if I had 10 readers or 10,000; it’s as if it never happened.”

As much as I dwell on preservation, my actual code and apps and the work I do in the software world might not be that significant. Instead, software can be the tool to make and preserve the important stuff: the writing, art, and discussions online that will matter later. Although I’d love to preserve the software as well, there is so much work to do just to keep the blogs and tweets. I’m content with making that easier.

Dave Winer also gives a nod to what software as art means, in an otherwise unrelated post on the press for Little Outliner, again framing it as what we’re building for other people to use:

“I think software is like other creative arts — music, architecture, cooking, even design of everyday things like bikes and clothes. It takes a relentless focus on the act of using, and what kind of effect you want to create.”

Joe Fiorini takes it even further:

“Perhaps our legacy is not in the software we build but the lives we touch, even in small ways, through the problems our programs solve.”

Like Andy Brice’s use of the word ephemeral above, Joe’s statement is difficult to measure. There’s no one thing we can point to years later. We just have to create something worthwhile and trust that it’s making someone’s life better, and that maybe that one customer will leave a mark on the world that survives long after our apps no longer run.