Of course software development is a constrained universe of expression, but so is each piece of software and the project of building it.

Each software project defines such a universe and its constraints. The software developed is an expression within that universe, as is every discussion about this software, every artifact—document, diagram, informal to-do list, scribbles on a whiteboard, and so forth.

Laurent mentioned expressive media:

[W]e can speak of an “expressive medium”: a set of constraints applicable to some activity, not necessarily linguistic, that are loose enough to permit an arbitrarily large range of nuances in meaning. It’s not necessarily that meaning can be expressed, just nuances. Peter mentions Yo-yos; a good test of Yo-yos as an expressive medium, for instance, is whether you could laugh out loud at a particularly skilled performer’s rendition of a “yo-yo joke”. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s not just that we invent expressive mediums. We have a knack for turning anything we do into an expressive medium. As a beginning driver, I was surprised to find that it was possible to blink a turn light contemptuously, or aggressively. [As a devoted non-driver and disliker of the ways some car drivers behave under the pressure of driving in cities, I’m not surprised.]

… Source code does allow one an infinite range of nuances in a restricted domain of expression [as opposed of being a medium for expression of arbitrary meanings]: the description of problems we expect a computer to solve for us.

As for yo-yo jokes, I guess it depends on where you place the boundaries of the medium or universe. Let’s say we exclude the ability of the performer to use facial or bodily expressions, such that he or she would have to wear black clothes, and perform in a room with black walls, so that the audience would only see the yo-yo and its string—then the question gets interesting.

Then, would it be possible to do parodies of other performers? Would it be possible to respond to what other performers have expressed? And so on. I’d say that it probably requires an expert audience, able to register the nuances, but I’m sure it’s possible.

As for every software project being a universe of expression in itself, it seems obvious now, but I didn’t realize it until just now, when I lay on the sofa reading The Seducer by Jan Kjærstad—a book which so obviously defines its own universe of expression.

It’s most apparent regarding its structure: it has several parts, which have several chapters. Each part returns to the same scene, and the second chapter of each part connects to something that happens in that scene. That chapter in turn connects to the following, and so on. It mirrors something he talks about in the book as resembling a wheel, with its hub and spokes.

But it’s also apparent in the story itself, where he has a set of expressive techniques or styles that he uses again and again—for instance, sometimes “defining” something and referring back to it; sometimes referring to something that hasn’t been “defined” yet (late binding?).

I like books that fully take advantage of the opportunity to define its own universe of expression, and then exploit them. This book is a very good example of this.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on July 31, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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