‘Geek Sublime’ Author Vikram Chandra on the Beautiful, Hideous, and Dangerous Codes That Shape Our World

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“When I wrote [Red Earth and Pouring Rain], when I write now, I want a certain density that encourages savoring. I want entanglement, unexpected connections, reverberations, the weight of pouring rain on red earth. Mud is where life begins,” writes Vikram Chandra – best known for his sprawling novels, 1995’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain and 2008’s Sacred Games – in his first published work of nonfiction, Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty.

The work’s title attempts to lasso its own excited musings into its predominant components: mapping the culture-bound intricacies of programming-world social norms, both asserting and debunking the mysticism surrounding coding culture, and examining what makes codes (be they Sanskrit or HTML) beautiful within our already codified notions of beauty. The title’s almost-symmetry speaks to the book’s contents, but Chandra’s beautifully muddy meditation on the aesthetics of coding and writing, modernity, antiquity, and cultural and gender politics slips right through the reductive confines of both title and description. The reader comes out of it feeling something akin to rasa, which Chandra quotes philosopher Abhinavagupta describing as the enjoyment of “consciousness itself.”

That being said, Chandra is in no way blindly exalting. More often than not he’s quite critical, especially when discussing male hegemony within a field that was actually invented by a woman (Ada Byron) and pioneered by women, who’ve now been erased from our geek-bro impressions of computing. The revisionist idea of computer culture as this untouchable valley of silicon, jizz, and man-brains is a major component of the book, fueling questions about power-hunger within a profession that the world has made – and that’s made itself – almighty.

Technology and its intimidating and inscrutable languages often serve as fodder, in literature, for a sense of unease. Yet somehow, even with these subjects that suggest human helplessness, and even within his sharp critique, Chandra’s overarching humanism manages to make this a surprisingly optimistic book that actually induces an almost universalist sense of awe. You’d think it impossible for a book that’s all about codes – and so, so many codes – to try to achieve something outside of code: but Chandra here prescribes abundant code as both a celebration and a cure for abundance and codification. He states that rasa is a feeling where “the aesthetic object, through the process of generalization, allows us to experience the emotional and cognitive fluctuations within ourselves without attachment, without obstacles, with a harmonious density that we cannot find in the chaos of ordinary life.” And he provides just that.

I spoke to Chandra over the phone about tech machismo, beautiful and ugly codes, and how programming relates to other forms of creativity.

Flavorwire: Towards the end of your book, you talk about writers’ (and programmers’) fetishes for their writing tools, and reminisce about your old gadgets. Were you hesitant to write this book – which is largely about translational acts between humans and machines – on a computer? I imagine the meta-ness of that could have been distracting.

Vikram Chandra: I’ve been using computers for writing fiction for so long now that I can’t write by hand anymore. A notebook feels so permanent! So I’m sure it’s changing the way of experiencing the act of writing. I always find structure by writing a book, by working through the ideas, but particularly in [Geek Sublime], there were so many moving parts. It was great to have a medium that let me rearrange, then look around and move everything back if I wasn’t satisfied. I worked a little in film. There, you often do the old-fashioned index-cards-on-the-walls. Writing this book, especially on a structural level, and profoundly on a knowledge level, was just about keeping track of so many little pieces of information and citations and notes to myself about how this one piece would reflect – way down the line – another piece. Not doing that manually makes it so much easier. The fluidity of it is very compelling.

The first image that comes to mind of a coder is of someone hunched over their machine, and their relationship to their machine. But while a writer at work, in this day and age, is often likewise hunched over a computer, we think of the writer more in relationship to their work and ideas, with a computer serving as a mere tool.

Yes, but there’s a sense in which we become very dependent. I wonder, in the case of your apocalyptic civilizational crash, if I could revert to pen and paper. The whole paranoia about backup – I hear horrible stories from writer friends who’ve been working on novels for years, and their laptop gets stolen in the airport. How can you not be backing up? Using a computer creates fluidity, but at the same time everything’s more fragile because of it. When it breaks down, we’re left helpless. We depend on it in such an intimate way. As with all of these recent security breaches, not least of all the celebrity ones. In my lifetime – which feels like a flash – we’re so knitted into this technological system that it’s embedded itself inside us, and it’s only going to get more like that. When I stop to think about how my parents lived and how I grew up versus the world we’re living in now, it’s vertigo-inducing.

In the book, you mention codes that have been so catastrophically messed up as to actually harm people. Like the code behind a certain radiation machine for cancer treatment giving people way too high a dosage. You discuss this in a page that’s very close to your section on the “Lord of the Flies” machismo that programming recruiters are looking for in America. Do you find the power of the coder to harm – along with this sense of bro-ish one-upmanship and even viciousness – at all frightening, especially in a time when war is likewise becoming encoded?

I absolutely do. I read this terrific book about the Kalashnikov rifle called The Gun [by C.J. Chivers]. It’s a history of the Kalashnikov – particularly the Kalashnikov as an expression of the Soviet system, its values – that it’s hardy, and that it’s cheap to produce in enormous quantities. That it’ll work after you’ve buried it for 20 years – and it’s all attributed to Kalashnikov himself. He was just a figurehead – they wanted to make a proletarian hero. So the system produces this, then he faces how this technological artifact then spreads around the world and changes everything, completely changes the nature of the late 20th century. It provides such easily available and easily handled firepower – you can give it to a 13-year-old and show him how to use it. And I think that tendency of great capability being available to individuals and smaller and smaller groups makes for a very chaotic, unstable environment. Especially in my part of the world you can see this. Just over the border from me is Pakistan – I’m not saying India is any paragon of stately peace, but you can buy locally made rip-offs of the Kalashnikov for a few hundred rupees.

So when I think about civilian drones, for instance – if you hang out in the Bay Area long enough, you hang out in a park and you’ll see somebody sending one up and having great fun with it. There’s the creepy surveillance angle – and people in various security establishments all over the world are already thinking that somebody’s going to start weaponizing them, and it’s not going to be hard. It’s something people are scared of. And on the mundane, everyday level, one sees the viciousness in online forums – enabled by anonymity. I like developments in communication, and I like to have my parents Skype with my daughters every Sunday, but there’s all this other scary stuff that’s coming or is already here. It’s a really interesting time to live in.

You write in the book about the connotations of these programs – their actual functions compared to, or sometimes in conjunction with, the pure aesthetic value of their codes. There’s this beauty or efficiency, but then there are the things the computer will actually make manifest. Have you ever had to deal with code that connotes violence?

Everything I did as a programmer was very basic. But in the writing of my last book, Sacred Games, which is about organized crime and policing and terrorizing in India, I did come into contact with people who think and worry about that stuff. In the Indian security establishment, for instance, I met people who were thinking about encryption, and this is well before the NSA revelations, but they were still terrified about the permeability of the world they were living in. And then there are some local police forces trying to figure out what the hell email is and how terrorists are communicating with each other, and how you deal with that, even. And then, at a very high level, national intelligence agencies are trying to figure out how to harden their own resources. I was asking these questions because encryption shows up at the end of Sacred Games. It’s something that is obviously immensely shaping the way nation-states are behaving with each other now.

At one point in Geek Sublime, you feature an image of a hideous code – or what a hideous code would look like if it were a bunch of lines. What’s the ugliest code you’ve come across?

Thedailywtf is a great site for that. I read it regularly, and there are some truly bad examples. I don’t remember one offhand, but look at Thedailywtf’s top ten posts! One of the things that I think is funny for a programmer to think about is [that] some of the systems we depend on have these features of unimaginable ugliness. I also try to communicate in the book that there are some things that are running that are so tangled that nobody understands how they’re working. People are too scared to touch them – if you change anything you could potentially set off some sort of disaster. We have all of these disparate systems trying to communicate with each other, and these algorithms that we’re giving more and more control, but their interactions are too complex to predict, so sometimes they end up doing very strange things. In the Wall Street arena this becomes especially clear. And this happens sometimes on Amazon, where some book ends up having the price of three million dollars, because they’re obviously running some kind of pricing algorithm behind the curtain, and something goes off and starts influencing something else.

When you’re laying out definitions early in the book for people who know nothing about the programming world, it somewhat comically reads like an old-fashioned ethnographic text, because people remain so unaware of coding culture that you really need to spell out certain technical and social patterns. Why do you think people remain so averse to demystifying this world?

The original impulse was to write a very short essay, a sort of ethnography of the programmer. And my entrance into it that, I found, was this idea of aesthetics. About people dealing with two kinds of language [Sanskrit and code]. And then it opened out. Programmers are aware that they are seen as having almost magical powers. And that’s one of the reasons I actually wanted to get down into the guts of computation and show what it actually does. Because often in popular text about computers, at a certain level, there’s a hand-waving that goes on. There’s logic, and a programmer writes some code, and there’s ones and zeros and electricity.

The other reason it seems so awesome – awesome in the sense that it becomes hard to understand – is that it’s obviously changed our world so much, but also the money that is now attached to it. The Silicon Valley, where you can become a billionaire overnight, is a kind of other-land, a magical place where people are doing magical things, and they have access to these powers we don’t quite understand. They can move the world in certain ways. There’s a sort of mystique that surrounds the business. People are also frightened by this.

You mention norms in Western cinema vs. Bollywood, and how in Bollywood you’ll have musical numbers throughout a film. And these are there to create rasa for the viewer, with a very jarring relationship to the rest of the film, whereas you write that as a kid, when you were watching Western cinema, there was a sense of monotony. Do you plan these transcendental moments when you’re writing, or do they just happen?

In any particular scene, I have a sense of the mood that it has, even before I start writing it, and the contours and its pace. The really difficult job, actually, and why it’s so slow, is to try and translate that mood that I can feel inside my head onto the page, then perhaps communicate that kind of feeling to an imagined reader. And I think that’s why – when I get to that “writing is hell” section at the end of the book, I think that’s my hell. Because you can’t ever step away from the fact that you’re feeling this mood, but you’re consciously trying to communicate it in the language you’re using. And people are very conscious of this in Hindi movies as well – I’ve sat in meetings for a bunch of movies where people have been talking about, “If we put this scene next to that scene, then we have a song, it’s not going to work, because it’s too jarring.” Ideally what you want to have is a liftoff moment when you move into the song, and when you drop out, you want to use that cut to actually do something to the viewer. In fiction, good writers do that all the time. They’re very aware of the architecture of emotion as they’re building it. It’s something I work a lot on.

You talk about the difference between empathy – and the desire to empathize with characters (which has an obvious falseness because one is empathizing with something fictitious) – and to this other sense, rasa, which is devoid of notions of the self or the specifics of the writing, but comes out of both of those things. Since empathy is so integral to our relationships with fictional characters, do you feel it’s easier to get at this sublime sense of reading through nonfictional concepts?

That’s something I was thinking of, in that I wanted to treat this book not just as a kind of history, but as an aesthetic object itself. Even writing nonfiction, I found myself thinking so hard about the movements of emotions. When you look at the table of contents, there’s a certain careful symmetry. Towards the end of the book, I quote from this one philosopher who’s trying to define the difference between the Vedas and history texts and aesthetic texts. I guess I was trying to make a history text, which had emotional content to it as well. After the book that was released in India last year, a young programmer said it made him feel wonder, and that made me really happy. That’s where I started within myself was with this sense of wonder at all of these disparate elements – the idea that Panini’s grammar is connected across 2,500 years to something we experience nowadays – is kind of incredible.