Tag Archives: art

Bringing Order out of Chaos

Summer has finally arrived in Seattle. We just finished a very typical cycle that we like call “Juneuary,” when the weather feels much more like January than it does June. It happens pretty much every year, and every year Seattleites moan and complain about it. We often get a nice stretch of weather in late April or early May, just to tease us, and then it goes back to being cold and rainy for another six to eight weeks. But then something magical happens; sometime during the first or second week of July, we go from 50 degrees and raining to 70-80 degrees and sunny, and it generally stays that way through the first part of September. It’s as if someone just flips a switch, and Seattle becomes one of the most glorious places to be in the continental United States.

This is also the time when Seattleites return to their gardening in earnest. The soaking rains of June followed by a few days of warmth and sun seem to turbo-charge the growth of every kind of plant, including those that we’d rather not have: the dandelions, clover, and moss that thwart our attempts at a decent lawn; the insidious vines that creep over from the neighbor’s yard and wind their way around everything; and all manner of quick-growing weeds that seem to spring up from nowhere and fill the planter beds, crowding out the flowers and bushes that we so meticulously planted the year before.

I often joke that our yard is very “intertextual,” which is a nice way of saying that it’s really a complete mess. I was out in the garden yesterday, mowing and trying my best to bring some order to the chaos that is our yard. I’ve never been a talented gardner, so my efforts are mostly on the macro level: mowing down the lawns, pruning back the large bushes, ripping out clusters of weeds and dead plants, or digging up sections that are beyond the point of any kind of surgical redemption. I often think that I am really just holding back nature’s unending and rather effective efforts to reclaim our yard and house  to the wilderness. What little pastoral tranquility we have achieved is the result of a constant struggle to bring order out of chaos.

Of course, gardeners are not the only people who bring order out of chaos. In many ways, this is what all artists do too; they creatively engage with unformed materials in order bring about new forms of order. Gardners create an ordered nature out of wilderness. Sculptors release enticing forms from the solid blocks of material that surround them. Potters caress beautiful and useful shapes out of formless clay. Dancers bring purpose and structure to otherwise random movement. And musical composers stich together ordered melodies, harmonies, and rhythm from a cacophony of possible sounds.

It may sound odd, but I think engineers do this as well. This shouldn’t be all that surprising though, as engineering and art are far more connected than we typically assume. The term ‘artisan’ points towards this connection; we don’t use it all that much anymore, but it refers to someone who is skilled at making things that are both useful and beautiful. Engineering, and especially computer programming, is really an artisanal craft. It requires a creative engagement with the world, an engagement that seeks to bring order out of disorder.

To be a bit more accurate, artists and artisans participate in the ongoing, redemptive work of God to bring about order in creation. Now, I’m not a trained theologian, nor play one on TV, so you’ll have to excuse me if I inadvertently start spouting heresy here. But it seems to me that much of what God does in the word involves bringing about order out of chaos, or restoring that order whenever it begins to disintegrate. We as artists and engineers get to participate in that redeeming and sustaining action, and we do so through our creativity.

In his book Voicing Creation’s Praise, Jeremy Begbie argues that “human creativity is supremely about sharing through the Spirit in the creative purpose of the Father as he draws all things to himself through the Son” (179). He then goes on to describe how we get to participate in this work:

There needs to be an interaction with creation, a development, a bringing forth of new forms of order out of what we are given at the hand of the Creator. And there will be a redeeming of disorder, mirroring God’s redeeming work in Christ, a renewal of that which has been spoiled, a re-ordering of what is distorted. This redeeming activity will entail a penetration of the disorder of the world—human and non-human, just as the Son of God penetrated our twisted and warped existence. It will also entail judgement; an unmasking of disorder, a denunciation of that which disfigures the world, as at Golgatha. There will be a transformation, the forging of a new order out of the ugliness of disorder, as in Christ’s resurrection (179).

How do you participate in the redemption of disorder, the bringing of order out of chaos? What would the “unmasking of disorder” and the “denunciation of that which disfigures the world” look like in your vocation?

The Artistry and Engineering of Steve Jobs

Steve JobsIn response to the death of Steve Jobs earlier this week, there has been a virtual flood of great writing reflecting on the man himself, his accomplishments, or his influence on authors’ personal lives. I’ve enjoyed reading all this, but the one source that has caught my attention the most is an oral history interview that Steve Jobs did with the Smithsonian back in 1995.

Although the interview was conducted while he was at NeXT (after he had been forced out of Apple and before he returned), Jobs was asked to reflect a little on his time at Apple. He started by describing what it was like to work there in the early years:

Apple was this incredible journey. I mean we did some amazing things there. The thing that bound us together at Apple was the ability to make things that were going to change the world. That was very important. We were all pretty young. The average age in the company was mid-to-late twenties. Hardly anybody had families at the beginning and we all worked like maniacs and the greatest joy was that we felt we were fashioning collective works of art much like twentieth century physics. Something important that would last, that people contributed to and then could give to more people; the amplification factor was very large.

Notice how he described the way they thought about what they were doing: “…we felt like we were fashioning collective works of art much like twentieth century physics.” For Jobs, there was little distinction between building computers, practicing science, and creating art. The interviewer picked up on this, and asked him to explain why he used the word ‘art’ instead of ‘engineering’. Jobs replied:

I actually think there’s actually very little distinction between an artist and a scientist or engineer of the highest calibre. I’ve never had a distinction in my mind between those two types of people. They’ve just been to me people who pursue different paths but basically kind of headed to the same goal which is to express something of what they perceive to be the truth around them so that others can benefit by it.

The interviewer then tried to clarify this by asking if “the artistry is in the elegance of the solution, like chess playing or mathematics?” Jobs disagreed, saying it was more profound than that:

No. I think the artistry is in having an insight into what one sees around them. Generally putting things together in a way no one else has before and finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight that makes them feel a certain way or allows them to do a certain thing. I think that a lot of the folks on the Macintosh team were capable of doing that and did exactly that. If you study these people a little bit more what you’ll find is that in this particular time, in the 70’s and the 80’s the best people in computers would have normally been poets and writers and musicians. Almost all of them were musicians. A lot of them were poets on the side. They went into computers because it was so compelling. It was fresh and new. It was a new medium of expression for their creative talents. The feelings and the passion that people put into it were completely indistinguishable from a poet or a painter. Many of the people were introspective, inward people who expressed how they felt about other people or the rest of humanity in general into their work, work that other people would use. People put a lot of love into these products, and a lot of expression of their appreciation came to these things. It’s hard to explain.

It may be hard to explain, but anyone who has worked in the computer industry knows exactly what Jobs is talking about. When I started writing software for a living in 1991, I too was struck by how many of my coworkers were musicians, or artists in some other field. We had all gotten into computers not because we had always been nerdy, engineering types, but because we saw the inherent creativity involved in designing and building software, and the amazing flexibility of the computer as an creative platform.

What Jobs is getting at here is the deep link between art and craft, a link that is embedded in the very word we use to describe all that cool stuff that Apple made: ‘technology’. As I described in an earlier post, the greek root of the word is typically translated as art or craft, so the literal meaning of technology is just “the study of art or craft.” In English we use the term ‘artist’ to describe someone who makes decorative things and ‘artisan’ to describe someone who makes practical things, but people like Jobs and his employees at Apple demonstrated just how blurry and permeable that distinction really is.

In fact, artists and artisans are really doing the same thing, just in different ways: they develop “an insight into what [they see] around them” and then put “things together in a way no one else has before…finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight….”

My first computer was an Apple IIe, and I write this now on an iMac. In between I’ve used many different kinds of computers and operating systems, all of which were the products of talented artist-engineers. But Steve Jobs and the “collective works of art” he inspired and directed have probably had the most profound impact on my life. That first Apple IIe sparked my imagination and drew me into a new creative world that changed the course of my life.

Thanks Steve. Rest in Peace.