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Rekindling the thrill of programming

Credit: Dreamtime

We humans are a funny lot. How quickly we go from being humbled by the unlikely feat of human flight to being irritated by how long it takes at the airport. We are routinely antagonized by traffic, but only occasionally amazed by the existence of a thing called an automobile.

One of the most prominent examples of recent human achievement is what we call a programming language. Reviewing the Olympic mental feats that punctuate the history of its creation will help you rediscover the near-fantastical nature of programming.

The programmer, like the poet

Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., in his influential Mythical Man Month collection writes, “The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff.” That is a statement worthy of reflection. For the working programmer and anyone involved in helping them be successful, it may serve to awaken dormant inspiration.

We could say that programming is an activity that moves between the mental and the physical. We could even say it is a way to interact with the logical nature of reality. The programmer blithely skips across the mind-body divide that has so confounded thinkers.

“This admitted, we may propose to execute, by means of machinery, the mechanical branch of these labours, reserving for pure intellect that which depends on the reasoning faculties.” So said Charles Babbage, originator of the concept of a digital programmable computer.

Babbage was conceiving of computing in the 1800s. Babbage and his collaborator Lovelace were conceiving not of a new work, but a new medium entirely. They wrangled out of the ether a physical ground for our ideations, a way to put them to concrete test and make them available in that form to other people for consideration and elaboration.

In my own life of studying philosophy, I discovered the discontent of thought whose rubber never meets the road. In this vein, Brooks completes his thought above when he writes, “Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself.”

A kind of slow-motion dance between mental and mechanical development was enacted over the centuries to arrive at what we can now call up in the browser with a casual flick of the F12 key.

Consider this programmable loom from the 18th century, and the role it plays in the tale. It’s interesting to look at a Baroque machine for algorithmic weaving and see punch cards that are precise analogs and forebears of the punch cards of early computers. The interplay of condensing thought and rarifying machines finally meet at the modern programming language.

awed wonder

For a grittier, nuts-and-bolts look at programming’s development, see Ron Pressler’s ambitious history, Finite of Sense and Infinite of Thought. From the hesitant baby steps of antiquity to breathtaking leaps like Babbage and Turing, there is the sense of moving towards something not fully understood, but intuitively felt. We are in an age of realizing the broad promise of this thing.

Pressler’s account marches resolutely into the hailstorm of mathematical and logical detail, but before setting out on the journey, he writes that “awed wonder is a powerful marketing tool, but it mystifies rather than clarifies.” Here we understand the warning is to avoid falling into programming fads and fashions. This is sound advice.

On the other hand, we don’t want to fall off the precipice to the other side, into a desiccated indifference.

It is to our detriment if we dispense with wonder entirely. It is healthy and vital to keep inspiration alive, to lift the head up from the work, zoom out for perspective.

There’s really no reason to divorce the joy of coding from the discipline. In fact, that is a recipe for dissatisfaction. Burnout in IT is rampant. There needs to be more wonder, not less.

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