Brin on learning to program (September 14, 2006)

David Brin gets it exactly backwards today about the ease of learning programming. I think he is talking about public education, not about learning to program in general.

In fact, it is far easier than ever to learn to program. When I started, my computers and calculators each had one or two programming languages, and as a child I had no opportunity to add a new one. I got BASIC, Pascal, or a calculator's custom language, and that was it. I cherished each scrap of example code I came across. My textbooks did not have program listings at all; I would have loved to have the scraps of BASIC that Brin talks about.

Nowadays, we have the Internet, and we have much better learning languages than the BASIC interpreters Brin talks about. The Internet gives access to gobs of tutorial information and example code. It also supplies great programming systems for newbies, like Squeak and Dr. Scheme, not to mention the various Logo's.

A better conclusion from Brin's essay is that teachers are using out of date text books. BASIC was flamed decades ago as being a poor language, and people who want to learn to program are drifting away from it. Whet he should conclude is that the curriculum pipeline is poor (they chose BASIC instead of Logo) and too long (there are better languages now).

But instead of this conclusion, Brin attacks researchers:

If this is a test, then Ben and I passed it, ingeniously. In contrast, Microsoft and Apple and all the big-time education-computerizing reformers of the MIT Media Lab are failing, miserably. For all of their high-flown education initiatives (like the "$100 laptop"), they seem bent on providing information consumption devices, not tools that teach creative thinking and technological mastery.

Researchers always risk being out of touch. However, Brin is attacking their strong point. Two of the three systems I mentioned above are spearheaded by people on this very same $100 laptop project: Alan Kay did Squeak, and Seymour Papert did Logo. On top of that, he explicitly mentions the MIT Media Lab, out of which came the great Lego Mindstorms. Brin is apparently unaware of what the researchers are actually doing.

The quoted comment about the $100 laptop points to where his core argument goes wrong. Yes, the $100 laptop is mainly an information sharing device, but that is because it is targeted at a general audience. Most computer users are not programmers!

And there we are. Yes, the proportion of computer users who are programmers is small nowadays. However, this is only because the increase in programmers is dwarfed by the increase in computer usage in general.

Everyone today is a computer user, and there are more programmers than ever.

Lex Spoon