Realism in art is the absence of sentiment. Livecoding is writing software in public while presenting the source code and its output along with the programmer as a kind of performance. Hacking (computer programming) is usually a solitary activity and hackers (computer programmers) rarely get to hack on (program) software that they themselves will use for their own ends or benefit directly from. Livecoding turns hacking into a public, social, self-directed activity by turning it into an artistic event.
By doing this livecoding briefly restores the kind of shared social context and the relationship of hackers to the fruits of their labour that Richard Stallman described in his account of life in the MIT AI Lab of the 1970s. As Simon Yuill points out about this account, Stallman describes the proletarianisation of hacking as business interests took over from pure (state funded) research.
If livecoding romanticised hacking or was simply an exercise in professional nostalgia for a lost age of authentic relations between hacker and machine then it would be sentimental. Sentimentalising hacking would add nothing to culture or to the socioeconomic situation of hackers. It would mis-represent its subject to its audience. It would be distraction, a comforter, spectacle.
What protects against this and what makes livecoding realistic is that livecoding involves the solving of technical problems in order to produce aesthetic results that maintain a social encounter between performer and audience. This is not relaxing either for the hacker or the audience. It can involve unexpected results and failure for both performer and audience. The hacker can lose their place in the code, corrupt it, or crash it. The audience cannot fall back on the cliches of rock or classical music appreciation. Both have to work at it.
Livecoding is a form of critical self-representation. It does not simply present the everyday activity of hacking as complete and exemplary. The differences between livecoding and hacking in a cubicle or in an office off of Brick Lane identify and make up for a lack. The heroics of performance are deflated by what is being performed rather than inflating the subject of the performance.
The use of aesthetics (sound and vision) as the subject of tasks in livecoding rather than, say, mathematical or logistics problems is resistant to immediate commodification by corporate information culture. Aesthetics, as Alan Liu points out, is resistant to corporate information culture because it is based on the quantitative rather than the qualitative. This isn’t to say that the qualitative cannot be commodified, but the culture industry prefers more easily reproduced and less demanding experiences.
Like net.art, Livecoding might be folk art of the hacking (or web and motion graphic designing) class. But its aesthetics are higher than middlebrow, and if it can resist the inevitable attempted putsch by the cultural studies department it will be able to create its own noise within broader cultural life.
Livecoding presents and represents a form of labour through aesthetics. This presentation is socially, aesthetically and technically risky. It requires work on the part of the performer and the audience. Their reward is to experience through an unusual aesthetic event what hackers are missing in society and what society is missing in hacking.
 – Richard M Stallman, “The GNU Project”, 1998.
 – Simon Yuill, comment at the second “Breakfast Club” round-table at MAKE ART 2009.
 – Alan Liu, “Laws of Cool”, 2004.
“Open Source” is in danger of coming to mean corporations sharing source code in order to reduce their development costs for proprietary software incorporating that code and thereby removing the freedom of its users. Those corporations may share code with a “community” and hire people to “manage” that community, but any code shared will be under a non-copyleft licence and/or a copyright assignment to the corporation (rather than to a trusted third party) to protect their ability to make that code proprietary rather than respect the freedom of users to use the software that it represents.
Hackers involved with such projects often support the replacement of freedom for all by the sharing of resources between producers, or at least don’t see it as a problem. This seems to come from a belief that they are not “just” computer users, they are the producers of software and so the benefit of sharing code and deciding which mere users get to use it is their (or at least their bosses’) right. This is misguided. Hackers use software in order to write software, and with such projects use of the software in any given context can always be denied to them. Hackers must make common cause with all users of software otherwise they will end up without freedom as well.
Open Source must not come to describe a guild or camarilla of hackers and their managers that oppose their perceived economic interests to the interests they share with all users of software. Feelgood rhetoric and permissive licences don’t offset the demands for privilege and control that corporate “open source” projects make, they conceal and enable them. Ignore them and instead use copyleft to protect user freedom with all its benefits for everyone.
I’ve upgraded the blog to Movable Type 5.