An Ode to Code

Deerfield Magazine Spring 2012

By Nathaniel Reade (Photo Credit: Bjorn Valdimarsson, Andy Polaine)

When Jonathan Harris stepped in front of an audience of 80 reporters and staffers in a New York Times conference room one grey, drizzling afternoon in midtown Manhattan, he had an agenda: He planned to tell them what they were doing wrong, and how to fix it. 

Harris has a history of delivering criticism to audiences whether they want to hear it or not, and this has landed him in trouble, from the dean’s office at Deerfield following the publication of an edgy, satirical underground newspaper, to boos and a barroom brawl in Brighton, England. Would he pull it off? Would the Times listen?  Or would someone take a swing at him here, too? 

Jonathan Harris certainly doesn’t look like a rabble-rouser. About 5’9”, he was dressed in a rumpled plaid shirt, skinny blue pants, and hiking boots to address the Times people; with a gap-toothed smile and a halo of curly blonde hair, he almost looked angelic, and his soft-spoken, tenor-voiced tone seemed both earnest and humble. If this was a sermon, it was more in the style of Saint Francis or Gandhi than Martin Luther or Malcolm X.

He had been invited to speak by a “data artist” at the Times because at age 32, Harris is a master at using the data of the Internet to create beautiful, interactive sites that some call “web art.” Paola Antonelli, the curator who commissioned him to make a site for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), says she was first drawn to Harris because “his approach to technology is unique. He uses it to know other people better. His work is human but it’s also always visually stunning.”

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, admires Harris’ work because Harris, he says, “understands art as a kind of science, and science as a kind of art. Jonathan lives fluidly between and across the two worlds, and by doing so he is able to embody a different kind of skill and talent.” You’ve heard of STEM, the idea of increasing innovation through science, technology, engineering, and math?  According to Maeda, “Jonathan embodies an education that is less STEM, more STEAM—adding Art at the core.” 

Harris, in other words, is one of the world’s leaders in bringing design and humanity to the ever-growing global organism we call the worldwide web. He is making art with computer code. And he has achieved his success in large part due to a code of his own.

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.

odecode1-1024x685After 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.

odecode2-1024x710Most of us would consider these two things to be polar opposites, but as Jer Thorp from the Times says, “Whenever a new technology comes along, artists are some of the first to use it.” Just as Gustave Eiffel used the new technology of iron beams and rivets to build his tower, Harris used the technology of computer software to build creations from vast quantities of Internet data.

After Fabrica, Harris launched a stream of website-based projects that brought him national and international acclaim. 10×10, for instance, scans global news-sites, determines the 100 words and photographs being used the most that hour, arranges them into ten rows of ten images, then stores them. This allows visitors to go back to a specific hour on a specific date and see what the dominant words and images once were. On December 29, 2008, at noon EST, for instance, they were Gaza, food, and the English soccer team Chelsea. 

Another project, called WordCount, constantly scans the web for over 86,000 English words, then ranks and sizes them in order of frequency. We Feel Fine finds phrases people post in blogs that include the words “I feel,” then converts those feelings into colors and sizes depending on their frequency and other factors. This produces a visual weather report of how the entire blogosphere is feeling, or any geographic and demographic portion of it you might care to choose, such as women in London who are over 30. In 2009, Harris and a collaborator published it as a book. Acclaim for We Feel Fine earned Harris an invitation to give a Technology, Entertainment, and Design Talk (TED Talk) and that led to the rare MoMA commission. 

odecode3-1024x757For the MoMA, he and a collaborator created I Want You to Want Me, an interactive website that scans online dating sites and converts the postings there into elegant images that Harris hopes illustrate not only the search for love today, but the search for human identity. It was part of a 2008 show called “Design and the Elastic Mind,” which curator Paola Antonelli says shows how “designers, when they’re good, take scientific and technological revolutions and transform them into objects that people like you and me can use in our everyday life.”

Despite this success, however, Harris felt dissatisfied with the Internet, the media, and the cynical state of the world. He says, “there’s a big difference between information and knowledge, and they often get conflated. Too many people believe that given enough data they will understand. This is a very limited way of seeing things.”

Harris also believes that too much Internet activity is addictive and harmful, appealing to our worst impulses. “A lot of web media is like fast food,” he says. “It provides instant gratification, but in time we become intellectually obese.” Nevertheless, he also thinks that the Internet is still in its earliest stages of evolution, and that it’s possible to push it in the right direction. “I believe in technology,” he says, but adds that it’s important to guide the Internet’s evolution so it becomes a “space we actually want to inhabit.” In other words, he thinks the world of computer code needs a moral code. And this belief is what started that barroom brawl in the UK.

In 2008, Harris was asked to give the endnote speech at a conference of 1500 software designers who were devotees of a program called Flash. He was originally scheduled to talk about something else, but something bothered him that he felt had to be said. So he told the audience that they weren’t fulfilling their potential—that they weren’t making serious work compared to other artistic mediums, that they were overly concerned with style and technique and not enough with ideas that could improve the world. He was calling, in other words, for arête.

Some of the Flash fans cheered him for this, but many booed. Later Harris went to the bar where other speakers were drinking beers. One of them told him he wasn’t welcome, and swore at him. Someone shoved someone against a wall; someone threw a punch; several people broke it up. The next day the Flash-o-sphere erupted with talk of the speech and the brawl, much if it filled with Harris-directed invective, and some of them asked a difficult question: Exactly how is Jonathan Harris improving the world?

Like a mystic returning to his mountain-top to meditate, Harris went travelling, looked inside himself for answers, and responded with his latest project: Cowbird.

cowbird-1024x549Harris explained to the Times audience that the name comes from combining two metaphors: The cow, a slow and grounded animal, represents older, more laborious means of communication, such as the novel, whereas the swift, airborne bird can be likened to the Internet. By combining them, he hopes to improve both.

Harris had concluded that humans need their own “myth” in order to feel rooted, that we each need to “create a life story.”  So he made Cowbird—a web space where people all over the world can hopefully cut through the isolation of the Internet and build global bridges to one another, through the exchange of their stories. He hopes this will create a “gift economy of stories going back and forth, rather than an economy of stuff.” 

 On Cowbird, participants post a photograph and a short story, which he wants to be inspiring. Harris and his team also periodically create “sagas” there, such as a recent one called “First Loves:” A photographer wrote about how being shot at by the Taliban inspired him to finally marry his girlfriend. A woman described getting a medical diagnosis of heartbreak. Harris posted a ten-minute audio story about the time his father nearly died, which inspired Harris to finally tell him he loved him. 

Cowbird, Harris says, has a threefold mission: He wants it to be a place for global self-expression unlike anything else on the Web. He hopes that it will become a long-lived library of human experience, allowing people to share their knowledge and wisdom in a kind of permanent, web-based scrapbook of their lives. He also thinks it can represent a new kind of journalism, where people report major news events through their own personal stories.

He told the Times audience about Cowbird, and showed them examples. Then it was time to give them their areté report card. He told them that the media—aka, each of them—generally puts forth a dark vision of things, which in Harris’ opinion could make darkness more likely to come true. Instead, he told them, “We need to put forward beautiful visions.” He suggested that they strive for authenticity, and even went so far as to say that their most successful writers—Paul Krugman and Mark Bittman, for instance—weren’t necessarily the most objective, they were the most authentic. 

Areté demands constant self-improvement. Plato felt that anyone who was trying to achieve it had in fact achieved it, because its value lay not in the destination but in the striving. Harris says that the Flash conflagration taught him a thing or two, and that afterwards he worked hard to improve himself and not sound so arrogant. Apparently he succeeded, because when he was done talking the Times staffers didn’t boo him or try to punch him out. Instead, they gave him a heartfelt round of applause. ••

Nathaniel Reade has written for dozens of national magazines, including GQ, Men’s Journal, Yankee, and SKI. This is his second story for Deerfield Magazine.