Programming as Literature

by Daniel Patterson on October 24, 2012

Sometimes I’m not sure how to explain what I study or why I study it. I tell people that I study theoretical computer science, or algorithms and programming languages, or math and computer science, and if they ask why? Let’s come back to that. First I want to talk about literacy.

Literacy is about being able to understand the recorded thoughts of other people, and being able to share your own in a permanent medium. There are beautiful oral traditions, but most stories, much of human knowledge, is written down. Literacy allows one to tap into that sea of knowledge. In many ways, libraries are one of humanity’s greatest achievements; that one can walk into a building that contains the thoughts and discoveries of thousands of people, stretching back hundreds or thousands of years (and as long as you aren’t at an exclusive university, you can often access that information for free). Some knowledge is certainly more accessible than other knowledge, and languages of course complicate things, but the essential element of literacy is both the perception of the world around you and the ability to describe it and share that with others. We must be able to understand the thoughts of others and formulate our own so that others can understand them.

The broader and perhaps more important aspect of literacy is that it allows you to contextualize your own life and perceptions in relation to others. In writing, you turn your own lived experience into something you can share. In reading, you realize that others have lived experiences that are in some ways similar and in others different from your own. In many ways, literacy is broader than reading and writing, it is rather about developing perspective on your own life and understanding of the lives of others. I can remember as a small child looking up at an airplane and realizing for the first time that there were people inside of it, in the middle of their own lives, with their own thoughts, hopes, dreams. For the first time I had an empathetic sense that I was not the center of the world (Descartes be damned).

Now, you may be asking, with good reason, what does this have to do with computer science? I want to argue that one of the primary mediums of our lives is now something that most of us do not have literacy in. We communicate with one another with email, websites, cell phones, etc. We learn information by pushing a button on a piece of electronics that displays pictures to us that change as we touch them or use devices attached to it. Traffic lights and airline schedules are planned with computers, cars run with them, watches, microwave ovens. Most things we plug in or have batteries have computers in them. Much of our lives are carried out using computers that we don’t have more than a surface empirical understanding of. Now there have always been things that individuals don’t understand. Tax codes, foreign languages, specifics of geography, etc.

But there are a couple interesting things about computers that distinguish them. The first is that they are all essentially the same. There is an underlying similarity between all computers, and indeed even among all possible devices that can compute. This means that it actually is possible to learn about all of these things.

The second is that they are primarily designed as a way for humans to express their thoughts. We don’t think about computers in this sense very much, but it is what distinguishes them from most other machines - they are used so that one person can express how to do something and share it with others. They are a medium for talking about solving problems. The breadth of such problems that they can express is visible by looking at all the places that they are used now - and imagine, this is with only a small minority of the population thinking up ways to use them!

There is a third dimension that is similarly interesting, and talked about more, which is that they are a way to expand our own mental capacities - if I am confronted with a task of sorting a few hundred (or thousand) documents, I can do it by hand, or, if I know how, I can write a program to do it and get a computer to carry out the work of sorting (and if I wanted the computer to do this sorting every day for the next year, I wouldn’t have to do any more work). What this means is that not only are they a way for me to share my ideas of how to solve a problem, they are also a way to automate that very problem solving.

What is interesting and sad is that while the posession of computers is expanding rapidly, the knowledge of how to truly use them is not. People are sold devices that allow them to perform a set number of functions (all of which are simply repetitions of thoughts by the people working at the company who sold them the device), but they are not given the tools to express their own thoughts, to expand their own mental capacity in any way other than that already thought of by someone else. We have expanded the medium without expanding literacy. And indeed, there is a financial explanation for this. It’s hard to sell knowledge when people can create it themselves. Many technological “innovations” these days are trivial combinations of earlier ideas which would be unnecessary if people were able to carry out those kinds of compositions themselves.

So why am I interested in computer science? I’m interested in it because I am interested in human thought. I am interested in how people solve problems, and seeing problems that others have solved. I am interesting in teaching people how to express themselves in this medium, and learning it myself. I study programming as literature, to read, to write, to share. I study it to figure out the world we live in, and imagine how else it could be.