Twin Selves of Tech, Art

People use ‘language’ to programme and write literature, Vikram Chandra reveals in Mirrored Mind

Published: 12th January 2014 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th January 2014 02:27 PM   |  A+A-


In his latest book, Mirrored Mind, Vikram Chandra investigates the “connections between the two worlds of art and technology”.

Chandra begins with the rasa—adbhuta—created in him when he read Hemingway, “a fleeting wonder and delight” that resulted in his studying literature in America. Tracing the time when PCs had just become commercially possible but the machines were still viewed by most with awe and apprehension, he describes his realisation that writing code also led to ananda, “a jolt of joy” that made him want to “slam this pleasure spike” repeatedly into his veins, even as it paid his bills, allowing him to write his first novel.

When Boolean logic and binary digits combined to allow computation, the earliest machines had to be instructed in machine code. Every single advance from then on has led to a phenomenal increase in processing power and ease of use but at this cost that programmers often might not know how a computer actually works.

Therefore, in self-sufficient America, the ultimate macho-warrior is the coder who can control the machine. He can be aggressive, rude, mannerless and arrogant so long as he can write machine code. It reinforces a notion of masculinity required from the programmer that has resulted in the exclusion of women.

Gender bias is hardwired in this world of either/or logic and binary numbers to the point that only 21 per cent of American women are part of the IT industry, despite the fact that the early programmers, such as the ENIAC girls, were women.

Chandra’s book reminded me of the 80s when in the girls-only college run by nuns where I studied, a diploma in programming was newly offered. The computer was reverentially installed in an airconditioned shrine while the rest of us languished in the heat outside. I now discover, thanks to Mirrored Mind, that having studied Basic I’m “mentally mutilated beyond hope of recognition”!

When I headed the computer department of a bank in the 90s, I was pitied for the long hours but no one thought it was not a woman’s job, validating Chandra’s point that there is a profound difference in the two cultures regarding their idea of the “programmer”. Women form 30 per cent of the Indian IT industry.

Returning to the beauty of writing elegant code, to the fact that people use “language” both to programme and write literature, Chandra steps into the mirror, as it were, to thread Panini’s Ashtadhyayi with Anandavardhana’s linguistic theory and Abhinavagupta’s observations, discussing language, its rules, the creation of rasa and dhvani. At this point in the book, given the radical jump from what comes before, and the fact that the material is dense even for one familiar with it, one has to have faith in Chandra’s established gifts as a writer.

Ranging from Indian literary theory to the conventions of Sangam literature, Chandra describes Indian sensibilities that escaped the effects of colonisation. If Panini’s rules written in 500 BCE influenced modern linguistic theory that in turn inspired newer computer languages, the rasa-dhvani theory helps Chandra locate his own self as a writer, gifts him a language with which to describe what he wanted to do in his first novel. This helps him both assess Paul Graham’s essay “Hackers and Painters” as a programmer and a writer, and understand that they are parts of his twinned self.

While the rasa theory describes the response aroused in the rasika, or the sahrdaya who truly is one-at-heart with the artist, it is left to Chandra, indeed all artists, to describe what is involved in his literary, or any artistic, endeavour. I wish he had dwelt longer on this aspect, his personal experience “of writer, text, and sahrdaya”. For, having created, there is no way of knowing the true effect of one’s creation on the sahrdaya.

Read this book with an open mind. Perhaps then there is a chance that you may be the sahrdaya this book is waiting for.

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