TITLE: Programming, Literacy, and Superhuman Strength AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 13, 2010 7:18 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I've written occasionally here about programming as a new communications medium and the need to empower as many people as possible with the ability to write little programs for themselves. So it's probably not surprising that I read Clay Shirky's The Shock of Inclusion, which appears in Edge's How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think?, with a thought about programming. Shirky reminds us that the revolution in thought created by the Internet is hardly in its infancy. We don't have a good idea of how the Internet will ultimately change how we think because the most important change -- to "cultural milieu of thought" -- has not happened yet. This sounds a lot like Alan Kay on the computer revolution, and like Kay, Shirky makes an analogy to the creation of the printing press. When we consider the full effect of the Internet, as Shirky does in his essay, we think of its effect on the ability of individuals to share their ideas widely and to connect those ideas to the words of others. From the perspective of a computer scientist, I think of programming as a form of writing, as a medium both for accomplishing tasks and for communicating ideas. Just as the Internet has lowered the barriers to publishing and enables 8-year-olds to become "global publishers of video", it lowers the barriers to creating and sharing code. We don't yet have majority participation in writing code, but the tools we need are being developed and communities of amateur and professional programmers are growing up around languages, tools, and applications. I can certainly imagine a YouTube-like community for programmers -- amateurs, people we should probably call non-programmers who are simply writing for themselves and their friends. Our open-source software communities have taught us not only that "collaboration between loosely joined parties can work at scales and over timeframes previously unimagined", as Shirky notes, but other of his lessons learned from the Internet: that sharing is possible in ways far beyond the 20th-century model of publishing, that "post-hoc peer review can support astonishing creations of shared value", that whole areas of human exploration "are now best taken on by groups", that "groups of amateurs can sometimes replace single experts", and that the involvement of users accelerates the progress of research and development. The open-source software is a microcosm of the Internet. In its own way, with some conscious intent by its founders, it is contributing to creation of the sort of Invisible College that Shirky rightly points out is vital to capitalizing on this 500-year advance in man's ability to communicate. The OSS model is not perfect and has much room for improvement, but it is a viable step in the right direction. All I know is, if we can put the power of programming into more people's hands and minds, then we can help more people to have the feeling that led Dan Meyer to write Put THAT On The Fridge:
... rather than grind the solution out over several hours of pointing, clicking, and transcribing, for the first time ever, I wrote twenty lines of code that solved the problem in several minutes. I created something from nothing. And that something did something else, which is such a weird, superhuman feeling. I've got to chase this.
We have tools and ideas that make people feel superhuman. We have to share them! -----