Many see the realms of literature and computers as not just completely separate, but growing more distant from one another all the time. Donald Knuth, one of the most respected figures of all the most deeply computer-savvy in Silicon Valley, sees it differently. His claims to fame include The Art of Computer Programming, an ongoing multi-volume series of books whose publication began more than fifty years ago, and the digital typesetting system TeX, which, in a recent profile of Knuth, the New York Times’ Siobhan Roberts describes as “the gold standard for all forms of scientific communication and publication.”
Some, Roberts writes, consider TeX “Dr. Knuth’s greatest contribution to the world, and the greatest contribution to typography since Gutenberg.” At the core of his lifelong work is an idea called “literate programming,” which emphasizes “the importance of writing code that is readable by humans as well as computers — a notion that nowadays seems almost twee.
Dr. Knuth has gone so far as to argue that some computer programs are, like Elizabeth Bishop’s poems and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, works of literature worthy of a Pulitzer.” Knuth’s mind, technical achievements, and style of communication have earned him the informal title of “the Yoda of Silicon Valley.”
That appellation also reflects a depth of technical wisdom only attainable by getting to the very bottom of things, which in Knuth’s case means fully understanding how computer programming works all the way down to the most basic level. (This in contrast to the average programmer, writes Roberts, who “no longer has time to manipulate the binary muck, and works instead with hierarchies of abstraction, layers upon layers of code — and often with chains of code borrowed from code libraries.) Now everyone can get more than a taste of Knuth’s perspective and thoughts on computers, programming, and a host of related subjects on the Youtube channel of Stanford University, where Knuth is now professor emeritus (and where he still gives informal lectures under the banner “Computer Musings”).
Stanford’s online archive of Donald Knuth Lectures now numbers 110, ranging across the decades and covering such subjects as the usage and mechanics of TeX, the analysis of algorithms, and the nature of mathematical writing. “I am worried that algorithms are getting too prominent in the world,” he tells Roberts in the New York Times profile. “It started out that computer scientists were worried nobody was listening to us. Now I’m worried that too many people are listening.” But having become a computer scientist before the field of computer science even had a name, the now-octogenarian Knuth possesses a rare perspective to which anyone in 21st-century technology could certainly benefit from exposure.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.