TITLE: Wesley's Quoted Quote AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 21, 2014 10:52 AM DESC: ----- BODY: My recent post Burn All Your Sermons was triggered by a quote taken out of context. Theologian John Wesley did not say:
Once in seven years I burn all my sermons...
He said:
"Once in seven years I burn all my sermons..."
Those "" make all the difference. Wesley wasn't saying that he himself burns all his sermons every seven years; he was talking about the practice doing so. Imagine the assistant of Wesley who, upon seeing this passage in the theologian's diary, burned all of Wesley's old sermons in an effort to ingratiate himself with the boss, only later to find out that Wesley very much intended to use them again. Fiery furnace, indeed. This sort of indirection isn't important only for human communication. It is a key idea in computing. I wrote a blog post last year about such quotations and how this distinction is an important element in Jon Udell's notion of "thinking like the web". Thinking like the web isn't always foreign to the way most of us already think and work; sometimes it simply emphasizes a particular human practice that until now has been less common. Studying a little computer science can help, though. Programmers have multiple ways of speaking indirectly about an action such as "burn all the sermons". In Scheme, I might express the program to burn all the sermons in a collection as:
(burn sermons)
We can quote this program, in much the same way that the "" above do, as:
'(burn sermons)
This is actually shorthand for (quote (burn sermons)). The result is a piece of data, much like Wesley's quotation of another person's utterance, that we can manipulate a variety of ways. This sort of quotation trades on the distinction between data and process. In a post a few years back, I talked a bit about how this distinction is only a matter of perspective, that at a higher level data and program are two sides of the same coin. However, we can also "quote" our sermon-burning program in a way that stays on the side of process. Consider this program:
(lambda () (burn sermons))
The result is a program that, when executed, will execute the sermon-burning program. Like the data version of the quote, it turns the original statement into something that we can talk about, pass around as a value, and manipulate in a variety of ways. But it does so by creating another program. This technique, quite simple at its heart, plays a helpful role in the way many of computer language processors work. Both techniques insert a level of indirection between a piece of advice -- burn all your sermons -- and its execution. That is a crucial distinction when we want to talk about an idea without asserting the idea's truth at that moment. John Wesley knew that, and so should we. -----