The Smithsonian Just Added a Chunk of Code to Its Permanent Collection

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The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt design museum in New York just acquired the source code to an iPad app called Planetary from its now-defunct developer. Code is officially art now.

Planetary, as you can see in the video above, is basically a fancy music visualizer. The app's source code was donated to the Cooper-Hewitt, which promptly open-sourced the code in hopes that people will use its visualization methods for other applications. Beyond the original lines of code, the museum has made a commitment to preserving the offshoots of the open-source project, and to nurturing their development. Planetary's source has also been printed out in machine-readable OCR-A font on archival stock. Apparently, posterity demands a physical paper record that's a little less fleeting than a digital archive.

In the history of programming, this chunk of C++ isn't especially interesting—it's more interesting that the Copper-Hewitt has chosen to collect code than what this particular chunk of code actually does. The museum posted a lovely (and lofty) curatorial essay a few days ago, and the extension of the collection seems logical enough:

We already have a number of “digital” objects in our collection, from calculators to desktop computers to iPads and iPhones, but we have only collected their physical form. The iPhone in our collection is neither powered on nor has it been kept up to date with newer software releases. Eventually the hardware itself might be considered so delicate that to power it on at all would damage it beyond repair—a curse common to many electronic objects in science and technology collections. How then do we preserve the richness and novelty of the software interfaces that were developed and contributed equally if not more than the industrial design to that device’s success?


If we might elaborate that argument for a minute, let's compare lines of code to an architect's plans. We seem to agree that the former is artistically and historically significant as an element of the final structure itself. Couldn't we say the same about the coded plans for an app? Or for that matter, about the firmware that's powering the chipsets in our phones?

Coding has always been an art, and now, it seems, we're ready to consider the canon of code as art as well. [Cooper-Hewitt and GitHub via TechCrunch]