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On Artisanal Software

#software development #creativity

Mr. Steve Jobs had a fascinating desire to make the internals of his Macintosh computer as aesthetically pleasing as the outside. There is something uniquely meaningful to us about this aim that at first thought one cannot describe. The affect of his aim lies in something we could call “artisanship”. That is: a perception of additional value an object possesses that is orthogonal to the readily perceivable value; That additional value could have been excavated if invested into these readily perceivable dimensions, but the producer chose not to in order to pursue an altogether different aim.

A three dimensional plot with the x axis labelled new features, the y axis labelled lower costs, and z axis labelled artisanship Figure 1: A simplified spacial representation showing the dimensions of value one might attribute to a given product. Artisanship is often not a readily perceived dimension.

Perhaps the emergence of this phenomenon occurs because at some deep level we realize our time in life is finite and therefore intrinsically meaningful. Therefore, we perceive the investment of time into the intrinsic beauty of an object as a whole to be aesthetic and are more willing to ascribe it a higher value.

Software is different from hardware in that a physical product is, in a way, an authoritative truth: it is materially in front of you as a “thing” that isn’t easily transformed into something else. Software, on the other hand, suffers (and benefits) from the attribute of being an “iterable truth”. It has little to no material cost besides time and due to its non-material anchoring is infinitely malleable. Unlike a physical good, software does not trigger the instinctive quality heuristic to “measure twice cut once”. An incorrect cut may be metaphorically “undone” by throwing away the wood because the wood costs little to nothing. There is no penalty for the failure to prepare and measure it seems.

I sometimes wonder whether the artisanal dimension of a product is applicable to the logical world of software. While that would be my hope – as there is little more satisfying than the comfort of a universal principle to justify your stubborn investment in perfection – evidence continues to suggest the contrary.

Perhaps the phenomenon of artisanal beauty is unique only to products that exist in material domains; however, at times I wonder if the contemporary technology myth of “moving quickly and allowing things to break” has become too saturated in the collective compass to see other approaches. Does real world artisanal software exist? Would the person who ends up using it even care? Maybe artisanal software is produced for the joy in craft of the creator rather than the consumer. Comically a lot like life in a way.