TITLE: Language Isn't Just for Experts AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 04, 2014 3:32 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Stephen Ramsey wrote The Mythical Man-Finger, in defense of an earlier piece on the virtues of the command line. The gist of his argument is this:
... the idea that language is for power users and pictures and index fingers are for those poor besotted fools who just want toast in the morning is an extremely retrograde idea from which we should strive to emancipate ourselves.
Ramsay is an English professor who works in digital humanities. From the writings posted on his web site, it seems that he spends nearly as much time teaching and doing computing these days as he spends on the humanities. This opens him to objections from his colleagues, some of whom minimize the relevance of his perspective for other humanists by reminding him that he is a geek. He is one of those experts who can't see past his own expertise. We see this sort of rhetorical move in tech world all the time. I think the case is quite the opposite. Ramsay is an expert on language. He knows that language is powerful, that language is more powerful than the alternatives in many contexts. When we hide language from our users, we limit them. Other tools can optimize for a small set of particular use cases, but they generally make it harder to step outside of those lines drawn by the creator of the tools: to combine tasks in novel ways, to extend them, to integrate them with other tools. Many of my intro students are just beginning to see what knowing a programming language can mean. Giving someone language is one of the best ways to empower them, and also a great way to help them even see what is possible. -----