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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Station to Station

Prescient. Warm.

Also all those resonances from having thought about nearly the exact same macro-changes to music (history of genres and popular music, impact of technology and economics) for Dr. Don’s class, a class which in turn sparked further explorations into culture and communication and semiotics (see my excessive tag-list).

Problem: Invoking Technology to Explain Change

Technology is so often an easy scapegoat for undesirable social/cultural/political changes, especially when they are associated with the young. Commentators so often conform to a structure of pointing out how there has been some undesirable change, providing some historical perspective (which, if you think about it, becomes easier and easier to do over time, in more ways than one…), and then writing a paragraph like this:

“Stepford concerns are over-amplified on social media. No sooner is a contentious subject raised than a university ‘campaign’ group appears on Facebook, or a hashtag on Twitter, demanding that the debate is shut down. Technology means that it has never been easier to whip up a false sense of mass outrage — and target that synthetic anger at those in charge. The authorities on the receiving end feel so besieged that they succumb to the demands and threats.”
– Brendan O’Neill, “Free speech is so last century. Today’s undergraduates demand the ‘right to be comfortable’“.

I don’t think O’Neill’s suggestion here is entirely groundless, but in its form it’s a classic example of the kind of throwaway reference to the impact of technology that we read so often, about things other than alleged differences in cultural sensibilities across generations – one might think of terror recruiting, or the polarization of political views.

So the ISM on Black Lives Matter I’ve referred to in a coupla posts on this blog is done, and both my supervisor and I are quite happy with the work. The theory (structure of communications as a way to understand social phenomena) and themes (what constitutes a social movement? what is the impact of technology?) are things I should probably develop further, and I’m writing this post mainly as a bookmark of sorts for the idea.

I don’t think ideas like ‘echo chamber’ or the illusion of being part of some majority (which I think O’Neill suggests, and which is referred to in this article) lack merit, but I think they certainly warrant greater critical investigation, especially as they are invoked so often.