An Ode to Code
At Deerfield, Steve Murray, his French teacher, advisor, and coach, remembers Harris as an intellectual sponge, quick to learn, who excelled in such diverse areas as painting, journalism, and water polo. His senior year, Harris painted 31 oil-on-canvas landscapes for his senior Independent Study Project, which were so admired that two of them still hang in the lobby of the Main School Building. He also created The Lower Level, a satirical publication that some found to be overly biting, and even cruel. Murray says The Lower Level was well done, but also at times cut too close to the bone and caused offense: “People don’t always appreciate being told the truth,” he commented.
Even so, Jonathan Harris says that his wide swath of achievement was simply the ethos at Deerfield. Students, he says, were taught to be “great friends, great students, great athletes, great artists, and great contributors to the community.” At Deerfield and ever since, Harris has strived to be the best he can be in all areas and to continually improve himself. He says this goal is best summed up by an ancient Greek code he learned of at the Academy, called areté, which means quality, nobility, and ultimately striving to become the best you can possibly be.
Photo Credit: Andy Polaine
After Deerfield, Harris went to Princeton, where he intended to study English, fine art, or maybe architecture. A requisite computer science course his freshman year changed all that. For one assignment he built a simple website and uploaded images of the oil paintings he’d done at Deerfield on the homepage. He sent the link around to family and friends, and experienced an epiphany.
“I realized that I had created this public space I could direct people to,” Harris says. “And it didn’t have a curator or an application process. I had this feeling that in years to come many, many people were going to want to do this—communicate ideas without asking anybody’s permission.” So he decided to enter Princeton’s high-powered computer sciences program. A self-described luddite who had previously only sent four emails in his life, he now sat beside classmates who had been programming since they were kids. For the first time in his life, he got Cs.
Harris struggled to learn computer code but he felt it was a necessity. He believes that every era has its own, dominant mode of expression—there was an age of theater, of novels, of rock and roll, of film, then television. And for his generation, he says the dominant mode is computer code. “When you think of the number of people a website can reach,” he says, “it’s just orders of magnitudes larger than ever before.”
Following Princeton, Harris travelled extensively and did some soul-searching about his purpose in life. He started a travel magazine. He won a coveted spot at Fabrica, a small-group incubator for young artists financed by the Benetton Foundation and based in a restored 17th-century villa near Venice, Italy. Before Fabrica, he had worried that his art only had appeal inside the rarified “bubble” of Deerfield and Princeton. At Fabrica, Harris says, he had to work with some of the best young artists in the world, from all walks of life. When he created things that passed muster there, it gave him confidence that he was good enough for the larger world, and it inspired him to combine creative expression with computer code.