Cave Paintings, Wabi-Sabi, and Plugins

The other night, the wife and I saw Werner Herzog’s latest film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”:

The movie was a 3D documentary about the paintings found in Chauvet Cave. These paintings are believed to date from up to 32,000 years ago, and are of an artistic standard that is stunning to this day:

The entrance to the cave is believed to have collapsed around 20,000 years ago, essentially sealing in the art until the cave was rediscovered by explorers in 1994.

After the film, my wife and I had some deep discussions about art and impermanence. Right now, my main artistic outlet is the development of plugins. And plugins (and software in general) tends to be very ephemeral. A plugin or music software program that runs on a general purpose computer will be lucky if it runs 10 years from now. Windows machines tend to be better in this respect, as an audio app that ran in Windows 98 could conceivably run today. However, the more useful audio applications from the 1990’s tended to run on the original Macintosh OS, and it is difficult to find a computer that can run these applications today. I have several friends that spent years creating work in Supercollider 2, and that work will no longer run on modern Macintoshes. Turbosynth is another “classic” Mac OS application that will no longer run.

The impermanence of digital audio software is obviously not limited to plugins and Mac/Windows apps. Most of the “canonical” computer music pieces were created for systems that no longer exist. In order to get the maximum performance out of limited hardware, the majority of the “classic” computer music languages from the 1960’s through the 1980’s were created using the assembly language of the machine they were run on, and will not function outside of that environment. For example, Music 11 only runs on a PDP-11; Music 360 only ran on an IBM360; Music Kit was designed for the NeXT cubes with built-in Motorola DSPs; the Samson box compositions only ran on the Samson box.

A few of the older computer music languages were written in Fortran (Music 4F and Music V) and still have a fighting chance of being compiled today. Unfortunately, the compositions written for these programs are also hard to get up and running – good luck finding a working punch card reader today. For that matter, many of the optical and magnetic drives from the 1990’s are no longer functional.

In some ways, the impermanence of software brings to mind the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi. This is the idea of finding beauty in transience, and that beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.” In the traditional Japanese conception of this idea, wabi-sabi can be found in rustic items such as the simple clay bowls used in the tea ceremony. The cracks and chips of such bowls, and the changing color of the glaze over time as it is chemically altered by hot water, are believed to embody the idea that “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

It is tempting to explain away the short lifespan of audio software as wabi-sabi. This perspective would allow me to explain away bugs as “imperfections to reflect upon,” and would carry on the grand tradition of appropriating Eastern religious concepts into a Western philosophical framework without bothering to truly understand those Eastern concepts. However, I’m not able to make the comparison stick.

One could argue that analog musical instruments and equipment decay gracefully with age. The yellowing grillcloths of a Fender amp, the crackle on the lacquer finish of an older guitar, the small tuning instabilities of an older analog synth, the strange electronic howls of a fuzz box as its battery dies…all of these would allow the user to reflect upon the passage of time.

Software does not age gracefully. It works, and then it doesn’t. The life of software is nasty, brutish and short, and death comes quickly via a hard drive crash, or painfully via the bloat of a Windows registry. When it is gone, nothing useful is left behind, except for a box full of toxic metals.

So, how do I, as a software developer and digital artist, respond to the impermanence of software?

For starters, I keep my prices reasonable. Charging several hundred dollars for something that won’t work 20 years from now feels weird. I’ll keep things running as long as I can, but there will come a day when I am no longer alive, and these plugins won’t keep working.

I can also look into embedding my algorithms into hardware. The long term longevity of digital signal processors has yet to be seen, but I have several digital reverb boxes that are 20 to 25 years old, and are still running strong.

Finally, there is source code as a way of survival. My algorithms from my Csound days are still being integrated into open source projects today, and those algorithms are from 1999. I am not working on any open source projects presently, but it something to consider for several years down the road.

Nevertheless, the odds that any of my algorithms will survive 100 years, let alone 32,000 years, are slim at best. At Chauvet Cave, we are seeing the work of a very few artists, and we have no true way of estimating the scope of art in the ancient world, but it is probably save to assume that the vast majority of ancient art has been lost forever to the processes of decay and weather. Life is fleeting, and all turns to dust in the end, so having art that is a reflection of this truth is probably the most honest response.