Thursday, November 12th, 2009

flwyd: (dogcow moof!)
More gems from 1986's Programmers At Work, this one from Butler Lampson:
That’s why I think the idea of computer literacy is such a rotten one. By computer literacy I mean learning to use the current generation of BASIC and word-processing programs. That has nothing to do with reality. It’s true that a lot of jobs now require BASIC programming, but the notion that BASIC is going to be fundamental to your ability to function in the information-processing society of the twenty-first century is complete balderdash. There probably won’t be any BASIC in the twenty-first century.

It's the 21st Century now, and the surviving BASIC dialect is Visual Basic, which is more different than mid-80s BASIC than it is alike. The heart of BASIC is to make it easy for people with a strong computer background to write programs. Depending on your perspective, this may be good or bad; BASIC and Visual Basic have been home to some truly groan-worthy code, but also let people accomplish many straightforward tasks more effectively. As the number of computer users has grown exponentially in the last few decades, the percentage of people who know a programming language has dropped significantly. In the 1970s, perhaps half of computer users in academic or research environments could write a program and most businesses that owned a computer had someone who could program it to some degree. Today, we've realized that programming well takes a style of thinking that doesn't come naturally to a lot of people in addition to an investment of time in understanding the ins and outs of specific systems. We've shown that it's more effective to have experts in programming learn new domains and write programs targeted to those than to have experts in domains learn how to program.

Lampson's bigger point is also insightful, but in a way it's wrong. It's true that the details of almost no program used widely in 1986 is relevant today[1]. The specific syntax of Microsoft BASIC, the keystroke shortcuts of WordPefect for DOS, and the location of hidden items in King's Quest are all irrelevant today. But folks like me who learned how to use computers before we learned how to drive have a cognitive model of computer interaction that's a lot more flexible and successful than folks in my parents' generation who get confused about the web and have no hope for social media. The medium is the message.

[1] Amusingly enough, this isn't as true for programmers. The C programming language, the vi and emacs text editors, and Unix-like operating systems have all evolved significantly in the last 25 years, but if you knew how to accomplish something back in the day, you can still do it now. Not to mention COBOL, the illness in the sleeper zombie army of legacy code.
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