Essays the size of cathedrals
On the borderland between essays and code
Michelangelo’s David covered by bricks, Florence, 1943-44
Let’s think about the borderland between essays and software.
We tend to think of these as separate things, but what exactly is the line that divides them? Any user-facing piece of software will use text to shape the experience. How much text can you add before it becomes a piece of experimental non-fiction?
And coming from the other direction, there have been several interesting projects that use code to augment essays.
Here’s Bret Victor’s Ladder of Abstraction, which incorporates interactive visualizations:
And here’s Michael Nielsen and Andy Matuschak’s Quantum Country, which integrates spaced repetition software to give the reader the option to not forget what she’s read:
Are those essays or software?
What about The Evolution of Trust, where Nicky Case turns Axelrod’s essays on iterated prisoner’s dilemma into something like a game — is that an essay?
Of course, it doesn’t matter what we call it. But the borderland between essays and code intrigues me. What else lies there?
The space is underexplored compared to normal writing, because, well, it is much harder to do than just typing words — and writers don’t have any resources.
Well, they didn’t use to, anyway. But that’s is changing.