Around 1,800 BCE, the world’s first known algorithms were exquisitely impressed on clay tablets by Babylonians living along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. To mark their novel creation, the earliest algorithmists stamped their works with the phrase “This is the procedure,” marking a critical turning point in the history of civilization.

Thousands of years later, those seminal algorithms have evolved into beautiful, living works with the ability to reach into our hearts, minds, and bodies. Alongside them, technologists themselves have risen as a powerful new creative class, sculpting imaginative, provocative algorithms expressed in today’s most dynamic and abundant raw material: pure code.

To herald this ascendant phenomenon, Ruse Laboratories has selected notable works to showcase the aesthetic beauty and unique influence of algorithms. The Algorithm Auction features archival algorithms that represent groundbreaking moments in the history of this discipline, along with unique living algorithms that express where this dynamic field stands today—and where it’s headed.

So, what exactly is an algorithm? Simply put: a procedure, a process, or set of instructions. A step-by-step set of rules used for calculation, automated reasoning, or (increasingly in today’s world) processing data. Just like all instructions, algorithms can be quite simple or startlingly ornate, elegant or convoluted, straightforward or creative—winding, dancing, darting, and sometimes, beautiful.

To begin, let’s take a step back to behold an Old-Babylonian algorithm for calculating dimensions of a cistern, first identified in 1972 by renowned Stanford professor emeritus Donald E. Knuth:

Today, these early Babylonian procedures have evolved from their original cuneiform-on-clay-tablet form and can be expressed in various ways, such as mathematical formulas, hardware, linguistically, or in today’s most common format: the powerful medium of pure code, which has intimately inserted itself into the lives of billions around the globe.

If we live in the machine age, then algorithms are the soul of the machine. Every time we commune with a computer, there’s an algorithm dancing within, leading us along a winding, pre-ordained route. Tweak the algorithm and you’ve toppled a dictator. Modify another and a baby is born in Berlin. There’s even an algorithm, rendered optically, that lets color blind people see the color red in all its shocking glory for the first time.

So it’s no wonder that when companies such as Facebook or OkCupid deliberately alter their internal algorithms, their audience obediently becomes happier, more pensive, turned on, or sad. It is these unique algorithms, living inside our machines—creatively crafted by human hand—that can decide if you’ll hook up with Sam for a one night stand, flee the scene of the crime, or dictate how our machines explore Martian soil. Indeed, a truly remarkable algorithm can gracefully achieve perhaps the most cherished ambition of the traditional artist: far-reaching aesthetic influence.

So how do algorithms relate to traditional art? We should first resist the facile temptation to lump algorithms into the popular catchall of digital art. While digital artists certainly employ algorithms as tools to arrive at their finished product, they are ultimately bound by the creative limitations of said tools. The algorithmist, on the other hand, begins to sculpt his or her work from a much deeper stack.

Algorithms share far more DNA with conceptual art from the 1960s, beginning with Sol LeWitt’s step-by-step instructions that offered a rough approximation at linguistically expressed algorithms, as well as the idea-driven works of Joseph Kosuth and the practices of later process artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres. For these artists, however—whose work, it should be noted, emerged in the heady early days of the computer age—concept and procedure trumped the executed product. And while process is paramount when beholding an algorithm on aesthetic grounds, its end result must also be noteworthy. Truly beautiful code must also arrive at a satisfying conclusion.  

Algorithms aren’t just imaginative; they are intrinsically functional as well. This combination of both aesthetic and practical utility sets them apart from traditional art forms. Although they are certainly designed, their core mission is inherently active. Thus they dart, twist, and weave as they march onward. The Babylonians found algorithms to be special, too, and research suggests they imbued their innovative procedures with divine significance. Today, programmers are breathing new creative life into these magical, 4,000-year-old inventions, pushing them out into the world via computer. But imagine a future world in which computers as we know them have become obsolete relics, like the astrolabe or abacus before them. We can be certain of this: the algorithm will remain.

—Ruse Laboratories

Views expressed are Ruse Laboratories’ own.