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Say "Hello World" to the World's First Algorithm Auction

How much would you pay for a few historic lines of code?
March 19, 2015, 11:00pm
Turtle Geometry, Hal Abelson, 1969. Images via

How much would you pay for a handwritten line of code?

In 2013, Tumblr helped Philip’s Auction House launch the first ever digital art auction by a major auction house. Just last year, the UK held its inaugural digital art auction. Now, Artsy, in collaboration with Ruse Laboratories, is hosting the first-ever Algorithm Auction this week, further pushing the art world into the digital landscape.

Scheme, Gerald Sussman, 1978-1981

The auction showcases seven pieces, algorithms, or pieces of them, documented through different physical forms. From "Archival Algorithms" that represent “important moments in the history of the discipline” to "Living Algorithms," that are more contemporary, like the ones that make art today, developers and their programs are being reframed in the context of the art market.

The Archival Algorithms pieces include Turtle Geometry by Hal Abelson, the man who created the language, Logo, that Obama used to write his first line of code last year, Gerald Sussman's Scheme, which was one of MIT’s primary computer languages, Hello World by Brian Kernignhan handwritten on a piece of paper as a reminder of the phase that is universally known as “the first step in a programmer’s journey,” and Keith Winstein's qrpff, six lines of code written in the language that was used to neutralize the “secret Hollywood content scrambling systems embedded on commercial DVDs” printed in gold ink on a blue necktie.

OkCupid Compatibility Calculation, Chris Coyne, Max Krohn, Sam Yagan and Christian Rudder, 2003

The Living Algorithms that are up for auction are by “elite developers working on the cutting edge of their field.” OkCupid’s Compatibility Calculation by Chris Coyne, Max Krohn, Sam Yagan and Christian Rudder, for example, matches potential lovers. Hypothetical Beats by Anthony Ferraro turns algorithms into music, while Chris Maury's Progression: Triptych is an algorithm that assists individuals with poor vision.

Hypothetical Beats, Anthony Ferraro, 2015

Progression: Triptych, Chris Maury, 2011-2013

Some of the purchased lots will come with a 3D-Printed tablet that contains private passwords to access the codes on Github. The slabs mimic the Babylonian clay tablets from 1800 BC that are cited as the first computational algorithms.

3D printed Babylonian-inspired tablet

In the auction's press release, Cara McCarthy, Director of Curatorial at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, states, “Cooper Hewitt has been working to increase its engagement with code and software as design objects through key acquisitions.” Bidding began on March 18th and will continue until March 27th. All proceeds from the auction go to the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.


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