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.