Art and Code

Robin Sloan, Craig Mod, Steve Jobs, and Me

published on 11.28.23

I was just in San Francisco for a week of working on Printernet. It was my second time visiting San Francisco. The first time was last August with Tessa on a trip out to visit Mason, Maddy and River. It was that trip (which I wrote about here) that I first got to swing by City Lights. I purchased Joan Didion's The White Album. This trip I told myself if I found a copy of Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, I'd buy it. The little indie bookstore across the street from my AirBnB in the Mission had Sourdough (which I just purchased for Tessa for her 28th), but not Penumbra. On my last full day in SF, I was able to make it back to City Lights before I went over to the Replit offices for lunch. They had it.

It was only after I bought it and sat down to read it that I realized the foreword of the 10th anniversary edition I'd bought was written by Paul Yamazaki who currently runs City Lights. I read the first half of the book in a night before finishing it in a day or two after getting back to Austin.

All I really knew about it going in was 1) I liked Robin Sloan's website and vibes a lot and 2) the book likely involved a bookstore. I had no idea how beautifully Penumbra would blend technology and art, books and code. The overlap between print and programming wasn't just part of the story, it was exactly central to it. This delighted me, I read the whole thing grinning. The book, especially the first half, is incredibly cozy. I spent nights with the main character, Clay, in an orange glowing tiny bookstore troubleshooting his code. He built a 3D model of the entire store where every time a book was checked out, it would glow a fuzzy glow on his computer screen. I read about these things in between my own programming sessions, drinking delicious coffee and writing code that also involved print reading. Beyond being a joy to read as entertainment, I found something else in Penumbra that has lingered. It is really just a kind of confidence or maybe even self-love? I saw my own interests and love for both analog art like books and computers in the chapters of Penumbra. This is after all why I started reading Sloan's online writing, it was clear he likes spending time in that overlap too. He even wrote an app that functions as a book. As I've been working on Printernet my feelings about it have oscilated (unpredictably, not harmonically). Some days I feel overjoyed to have found an idea that is so authentic to what I love about the world. Saying that I was my own first user is not just a cliche, it's the truth. I genuinely love how Printernet has allowed me to effortlessly turn my favorite writer's writing from the internet into beautiful (tactile!) print. I probably read an average of 2 Printernet issues a week. But some days I feel silly about the whole thing. Does it even make sense? Wouldn't people rather read for free on a screen? Sure I know I have things I hate about reading on an iPhone or computer screen, but will others just suck it up? Printernet can sometimes feel like a toy or hobby or art rather than a business.

Do I want it to be art or a business? That is what I often wonder. Reading Penumbra has given me the clarity (or maybe it is more accurate to say it has given me a much needed reminder) that I want it to be both.

In what ways do I want it to be both art and business? Well, my first thought is that I want my entire life to be art and business, meaning that I want my work to be artful. I want my work to bring me meaning, I want my work to be beautiful and considered, and I want it to support me and allow me to keep doing it rather than other (unartful) work. It is this sorta thing that I want Printernet to be. When I am coding for Printernet or fulfilling an order, I am smiling. I am drinking coffee, listening to wonderful music, having new ideas. I can work for six hours, uninterrupted, and come home with more energy than when I left! That is what I am after. But I can see that that is a bit of an abstraction, or at least too generalized to specify all that I mean when I say I want Printernet to be both art and a business. More practically, specifically, I mean I want the product (that people pay for) to be artful. Not just beautiful in an aesthetic sense, but considered. I want each decision to be a reflection of the things I love and find beautiful. I want it to be useful and literally nice to interact with (on a coffee table, reading an issue on a plane, fun to talk about, fun to build).

This post is ongoing... I've stopped here for now but rest assured that soon there will be more about all of this. I will write about Craig Mod, Steve Jobs and his famous "liberal arts meets technology", and other related ideas and it will be amazing.

Collected reading on this topic