Looking for Digital Aesthetics

There is a need for a more beautiful digital world, an alternative to our current paradigm of planned obsolesence, bloated web browsers, and material design. This intersection between user freedom, computer science, and aesthetics is a largely unexplored niche, which is unsurprising when one takes into account the proclivities of the tech industry. There is already a community of "creative coders," who are digital artists first, and programmers only incidentally; and then there is the Free Software Foundation, which is heavily involved in the technical and legal side of computing, but not the artistic side. These groups oppose two prevailing ideas within the tech world, respectively:

  1. technology is mundane
  2. technology should exert as much power over its users as possible

What I'd like to see is a synthesis of these two ideas, a sort of extreme user empowerment movement-- but the Free Software Foundation and the creative coding community (generally embodied by the Processing foundation) are too at odds with each other to be united. In order to find the seeds of this new movement, we have to look past those two giants and search deeper in the tech world.

There are some terrifying personas within the tech world. Whether you're looking among silicon valley types, commentors on hacker news who feel weirdly zealous about some specific technology that they use, or verbally abusive project maintainers who spend all day browsing through mailing lists and irc channels, you'll find many people whose presence makes you regret going into computers in the first place. Indeed, you might come to the conclusion that technology was a mistake and can't be saved. If you stick around, though, you might be lucky enough to catch wind of people who do some truly beautiful things with computers.

Take 100 Rabbits for example. They're a cult criminal syndicate lifestyle brand pair of friends who live on a sailboat. Due to their nautical lifestyle, they're very into durablility and sustainability, and have been developing ways to use technology in a way that works with their unconventional living situation. They've also developed their own aesthetic (see their website) and work on some pretty cool art software for a hipster operating system called 9front. 100 Rabbits successfully integrates aesthetics within a free-software ethos, exploring every physical and virtual inch of the computer in the process, leaving no pixel un-dithered.

There are other small groups like 100 Rabbits who have been doing their own thing, dual-wielding art and technology in a very indie, niche sort of way. Once I find my notebook I'll add a few other such groups to this article.

I've been trying a little bit of art-and-code magic myself, to varying degrees of success. After what I've seen 100 Rabbits and others do, I've become convinced that the whole computer, and all of the software on it, is worthy of being refined and reshaped into a piece of art. Maybe someday, I'll figure out something interesting and post it to this blog; maybe someday, this sort of artistic movement I've found will grow bigger and become an actual force that improves technology. Until then, I'll continue searching and trying to understand technology's creative potential.