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Think of a box of luxury chocolates. Beginning with an attractive package, you slide off the cover to see an array of luscious morsels. Each chocolate is different but they share a common theme, and as a set they demonstrate the confectioner's craft. You won't quite know what's inside a particular choice until you get to the middle, and some you will prefer over others. Indulgent and extravagant perhaps, but the complete experience is an exquisite combination of engineering and art.
This is very much the experience of Aesthetic Computing, a collection of texts edited by Paul Fishwick, which investigate how the two—that is, aesthetics and computing—are intertwined. This collection is part of the Leonardo series published by MIT Press, with the mission to "publish texts by artists, scientists, researchers, and scholars that present innovative discourse on the convergence of art, science, and technology."
Ah, but what—exactly—does this mean? It probably can't be put in words, although the authors of the 21 essays in the collection certainly do try. From wrestling to understand the authors' attempts to articulate and describe their efforts, the reader builds a sense for this multifaceted but elusive interface between art and engineering. As a discourse, Aesthetic Computing is more like reading philosophy or Zen than the technical establishment of ideas we (members of the IEEE Computer Society) may be used to. The overall goal is to provide a gestalt of the field, not to lay the groundwork for scientific replication or practical implementation.
One of the early thought-provoking essays delves into execution and implementation issues, trying to identify where the aesthetics of computer-generated work lies. Comparisons are made to music composition: do the aesthetics lie with the composer or performer? In music, the answer is some combination and, indeed, good performers balance compliance with the written score with their unique interpretation at the time. This essay considers whether a similar dialectic can apply to computational works, thereby leading to aesthetic values.
At times, I found the text a bit academic and impenetrable, but that probably derives from the subject's complexity and subtleness and my lack of experience with advanced writing in the arts. Where I really saw the point, quite often and literally, was in the figures and diagrams. One captivating set of diagrams used prime factorizations of a number sequence to introduce "random" effects in digitized graphics, yielding stunning computational-yet-natural illustrations. Another more prosaic diagram represented lines of code in a software project, mapping their changes over the development cycle. The resulting graphic was riveting to me in its information but would be stunning as visual art even for someone unfamiliar with software development.
That artists must inform engineers—and not vice versa—is an undercurrent throughout the book. The aesthetics of computing were "completely irrelevant" until software acquired a material basis as a tool in desktop computing: "by stimulating the flow of ideas and methods from the arts to computing, computers scientists and engineers will achieve their objectives more easily, quickly, or elegantly. … New practices and approaches will emerge … that would not naturally have evolved within the computer sciences and engineering." Cross-fertilization no doubt has much to offer, but occasionally the primacy of the artistic viewpoint grated a little.
For example, a brief discussion of a T3 backbone network diagram described the white lines used for the links as echoes of an animal's skeletal structure, implying an aesthetic. I saw a dark-gray map of the US on a black background and concluded that white was the best way to make the network stand out—just good engineering. Keep in mind, though, that this book partly aims to provoke this kind of thought and discussion—good art forces a response, sometimes by being a little irritating.
Aesthetic Computing is well done not only in its content but also in its physical style: a solid binding, great illustrations, crisp paper, and satisfying fonts and layouts and thus stands as an example of computing (or, at least, information transfer) combined with aesthetics. It should be on the radar of anyone involved with computer-generated art and music, interface design, human factors in computing, computing history, and related fields. Like a box of chocolates, it provides a variety of tastes to be savored and reflected upon.
Todd Schultz is a professor and the associate dean of the James M. Hull College of Business at Augusta State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.