On BASIC Computer Literacy

From an interview with Butler Lampson, collected in Programmers at Work (1986):

INTERVIEWER: What do you see as problem areas for the personal computers that exist today?

Personal computers are fairly junky. I don’t define that as a problem. They’re new and people are learning about them, and they’re getting better rapidly. Alan Kay made a great comment about the Mac – it was the first computer good enough to criticize. It makes sense for people who are building the next generation of computers or programs to think about what’s wrong with the current ones, in order to make the next ones better.

That’s why I think the idea of computer literacy is such a rotten one. By computer literacy I mean learning to use the current generation of BASIC and word-processing programs. That has nothing to do with reality. It’s true that a lot of jobs now require BASIC programming, but the notion that BASIC is going to be fundamental to your ability to function in the information-processing society of the twenty-first century is complete balderdash. There probably won’t be any BASIC in the twenty-first century.

INTERVIEWER: So how should we prepare ourselves for the future?

To hell with computer literacy. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Study mathematics. Learn to think. Read. Write. These things are of more enduring value. Learn how to prove theorems: A lot of evidence has accumulated over the centuries that suggests this skill is transferable to many other things. To study only BASIC programming is absurd.

INTERVIEWER: Is the industry being overrun by BASIC programmers?

No, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly harmful about programming in BASIC. What is bad is that people get very worried and feel that their children won’t have a future if they don’t learn to program in BASIC. There’s no reason for them to worry.

INTERVIEWER:But nobody knows for certain what skills will be required.

Well, there’s some truth to that […]


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