The Healing Power of Code

For some of us—isolates, happy in the dark—code is therapy, an escape and a path to hope in a troubled world.

Originally published by: WIRED

A little over a year ago, as the Covid-19 lockdowns were beginning to fan out across the globe, most folks grasped for toilet paper and canned food. The thing I reached for: a search function.

The purpose of the search function was somewhat irrelevant. I simply needed to code. Code soothes because it can provide control in moments when the world seems to spiral. Reductively, programming consists of little puzzles to be solved. Not just inert jigsaws on living room tables, but puzzles that breathe with an uncanny life force. Puzzles that make things happen, that get things done, that automate tedium or allow for the publishing of words across the world.

Like many other writers and artists, I maintain a personal website. My current one has been active for nearly 20 years. Code in mind, I brushed off my rusty JavaScript skills and started to poke around for fuzzy-search libraries I could bolt onto my homepage, to make it easy to find specific essays from my collection.

Break the problem into pieces. Put them into a to-do app (I use and love Things). This is how a creative universe is made. Each day, I’d brush aside the general collapse of society that seemed to be happening outside of the frame of my life, and dive into search work, picking off a to-do. Covid was large; my to-do list was reasonable.

The real joy of this project wasn’t just in getting the search working but the refinement, the polish, the edge bits. Getting lost for hours in a world of my own construction. Even though I couldn’t control the looming pandemic, I could control this tiny cluster of bits.

The whole process was an escape, but an escape with forward momentum. Getting the keyboard navigation styled just right, shifting the moment the search payload was delivered, finding a balance of index size and search usefulness. And most important, keeping it all light, delightfully light. And then writing it up, making it a tiny “gist” on GitHub, sharing with the community. It’s like an alley-oop to others: Go ahead, now you use it on your website. Super fast, keyboard-optimized, client side Hugo search.

It’s not perfect, but it’s darn good enough.

The point being that a habit of reaching for code is not only healing for the self, but a trick to transmute a sense of dread into something: A function that seems to add, however trivially, a small bit of value to the greater whole in a troubling moment.

I began coding when I was 10 and have been running with it ever since. Self-taught, mostly. I had a preternatural awkwardness with others. The machine was literal in a reassuring way, and seemed to promise access to a world that even the adults around me couldn’t fathom. In this way, the code became a friend—a nonjudgmental buddy.

A pattern was set: When the complexities of social situations exhausted me as a child, I turned to code, became an isolate. Ellen Ullman writes in her book Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, “Until I became a programmer, I didn’t thoroughly understand the usefulness of such isolation: the silence, the reduction of life to thought and form; for example, going off to a dark room to work on a program when relations with people get difficult.”

Reading assembly language books in middle school or programming BBS software in high school didn’t register, then, explicitly, as a salve. My first conscious acknowledgement of the palliative power of code came a few years ago when I refactored my website from one content management system to another. This sounds implausible, but it’s true: I was healed by a CMS, a Google-unique phrase—and for good reason.

At the time, I was suffering from personal and professional depressions, a long time in the making. I had been knocked off kilter. When I took stock of my mind, I realized it was not where I wanted or expected it to be.

This happens to me, sometimes; to certain people, many times. I think often of the epigraph of William Styron’s Darkness Visible when I feel the weight of a depression descend: “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me …” That descent usually means I haven’t been getting enough rest. I don’t mean over the course of days, but rather months or years. A slow tilting, like a ship taking on water through a pinhole. Given enough time, it must tip. My mind was tipping, and I found myself grasping for, of all things, servers. Like a life raft. Servers, it turns out, are one of my safe places.

I had wanted to shed my rickety and overpriced Rackspace server for years, but had been too lazy. It’s a meaty task, a task for grunts, thankless, and one that requires focus.

Most everything related to servers happens in the “terminal,” on the command line, in a world devoid of images or graphical interfaces. Just text. Every action is key-precise and hyper-literal. A mistype of a single character can destroy a system. In fact, for decades, servers have presented the following message when you enter into administrator or “super user” mode:

We trust you have received the usual lecture from the local System Administrator. It usually boils down to these three things:

1: Respect the privacy of others.

2: Think before you type.

3: With great power comes great responsibility.

It can make a person weak in the knees to think about how much of the world’s smooth operation is contingent on typing accuracy. But it is, and when you move through the guts of your favorite Linux operating system distribution, you can’t help but stare gape-mouthed at the absurdity and beauty of the crisscross threads that keep the web and most of our digital (and, by proxy, physical) infrastructure afloat.

Therein lies part of the attraction: Moving through that jumble—with all of its perverted poetics of grep and vi and git and apache and *.ini—*and doing so with a fingers-floating-across-the-keyboard balletic grace, is exhilarating. You feel like an alchemist. And you are. You type esoteric words— near gibberish—into a line-by-line text interface, and with a rush not unlike pulling Excalibur from the stone you’ve just scaffolded a simple application that can instantly be accessed by a vast number of humans worldwide.

Romantic partners have regarded me with confusion and perhaps suspicion when I suddenly went fluent in bash (a flavor of terminal shell used to type commands). It was as if I had been keeping a dirty secret from them. I once dropped quick-fingered into text-land to help a friend’s teenage son install some Minecraft mods, and by the look in his eyes I could tell I had become a minor celebrity in real time. With a few hundred keystrokes, two generations were bridged.

I find peace in the dark mess of that world. Code and servers are a home to me in a way that’s difficult to explain to anyone for whom they are not.

So in my tilted state, my slightly depressive state, I moved websites from my old server to my new server. My tasks were guided by the trusty to-do list. URLs of old sites marked off distinct epochs in my life, of a variety of lenses through which I once saw myself. Perhaps I am this kind of artist or will be this kind of writer?

The old websites of mine are ghosts. Nobody will look at or think to hunt them down. I moved them because I feel a stewardship over them, feel that they have a right to go on living in bits.

A lot of this server work involved making complicated sites less complex. That is: Making the dynamic static. Gutting these sites of their PHP cores, Benjamin Buttoning them back into sleepy HTML and CSS, making them low maintenance and future friendly. It’s funny how even something as simple as a MYSQL database requires pruning, nurture. How a PHP script—so seemingly innocuous!—is rendered obsolete a decade later as deprecation creeps, mental models of languages evolve. But take a page of HTML from the early ’90s, and it renders as well as ever on most anything with a screen.

In that spirit, as I moved my homepage I also rebuilt it as a so-called static site. A simpler version that should continue to work for the next hundred years. It looks nearly the same as it did before. With static sites, we’ve come full circle, like exhausted poets who have travelled the world trying every form of poetry and realizing that the haiku is enough to see most of us through our tragedies.

As is true for most infrastructure work, these gruntish behind-the-scenes tasks are often neglected, or derided as irrelevant, underfunded, ignored. That is, until they break, or a pandemic hits, and then we realize how infrastructure is everything, and without it our world reverts to some troglodytic cave state, or perhaps worse, an ever-widening extreme of haves and have-nots.

In the late 1990s you almost had no choice but to be your own homepage steward and janitor and systems engineer. Now you can offload that stewardship to a third party. Tumblr, Ghost, Facebook, Blogger, WordPress—platforms have sprung up where you can focus purely on content in exchange for giving up a certain level of control.

You can take stewardship too far. I probably have. There is a diminishing return on what you can get out of any system, regardless of how much you put into it. But I don’t care.

This work of line-by-line problem solving gets me out of bed some days. Do you know this feeling? The not-wanting-to-emerge-from-the-covers feeling? Every single morning of the last year may have been the most collectively experienced covers-craving in human history, where so many things in the world were off by a degree here or a degree there. But under those covers I begin to think—A ha! I know how to solve server problem x, or quirk y. I know how to fix that search code. And I’m able to emerge and become human, or part human, and enter into that line-by-line world, where there is very little judgement, just you and the mechanics of the systems, systems that become increasingly beautiful the more time you spend with them. For me, this stewardship is therapy.

And so I pull apart a system—a system that I have loved and has served me well over the years—and figure out a better, more sustainable framework for the code, and one hopes, by extension, maybe even the world.

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