Sunday, May 31, 2009

Software as Fiction

I caught an installment of The Bob Edwards Weekend on PRI this week where he was interviewing Denis Dutton, a philosopher and author of The Art Instinct – Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Dutton is also the founder and editor of the website Arts & Letters Daily which was named by the Guardian as the “best Web site in the world.”

Anyhow, and to oversimplify, his premise is that art is much more than heat thrown off of a cultural engine – rather, art sits at the heart of our evolutionary advantage. Art provides a safe, effective means to learn life’s tough lessons without actually having to suffer the scars or take the risks inherent in the real world. As a species, fiction gave us the ability to adapt and survive better than our less creative Neanderthal competitors.

My first thought was of one of my father’s stories – “The Zebra Story Teller” –Checkout the following analysis from The Norton Introduction to Literature: “’The Zebra Storyteller’ suggests that the purpose of stories is to prepare us for the unexpected. Though the storyteller (a zebra in the story) thinks he is just spinning stories out of his own imagination in order to amuse, his stories prove to be practical. When the extraordinary occurs—like a Siamese cat speaking Zebraic—the storyteller is prepared because he has already imagined it, and he alone is able to protect his tribe against the unheard‐of.”

In the context of Dutton’s thesis, the Zebra Storyteller describes how fiction emulates the science that establishes fiction as an emulator!

The Zebra Storyteller is included here at the end of this post.

What’s this have to do with software? If fiction is a safe way to explore and grow – what are computer games? Simulators for airplanes or war games? Test cases that are a part of every application development cycle? We typically think of software as a means of automation that increases productivity, improves quality, etc. – but if Dutton is right, software plays an equally important (or even more important) role as a "low-cost, low-risk surrogate experience."

…and for me – this leaves room (establishes the permanent need) for the truly creative developer who is not chained to a formal spec…

Programmers as poets writing software sonnets - diggit!

The Zebra Storyteller
by Spencer Holst

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.

That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.

Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle, and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.

“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic. “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing, isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”

The zebra is so astonished at hearing a Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why, he’s just fit to be tied.

So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.

The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.

He began boasting to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact that he hunted zebras.

The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.

One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ’em laugh!”

Just then the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”

The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language, because he’d been thinking about that very thing.

He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.

That is the function of the storyteller.

©Spencer Holst. From THE ZEBRA STORYTELLER, Station Hill Press